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Slice through noisy communication channels to communicate effectively with Congress.


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Laser Relations

By Fred H. Hutchison

Wander through the halls of the Russell or Rayburn Office Buildings and you will see that members of Congress are absolutely inundated with written and verbal communications. Phones ring incessantly, fax machines never stop, mail is delivered in big canvas bags, and e-mail arrives in torrents.

Donít get me wrong. Iím not asking you to pity the 535 members of the United States Senate and House of Representatives. They are paid reasonably well for their work, and they fight like cats and dogs to get the job in the first place. I do, however, ask you to pity the poor junior-level staff person who gets stuck sorting postcards, answering first class mail, wading through faxes and email, or answering the telephone.

These bright, young faces fresh from college thought they were coming to Washington to begin a glamorous career. Wrong. They voluntarily committed themselves into indentured servitude. Someday they will graduate into the ranks of such venerable institutions as corporate offices, law and lobbying firms, and trade associations. In the mean-time, their lives will be a living hell.

I should know; 25 years ago I was one of them. (See related story.)

In the olden days, we only had five phone lines and snail mail. Facsimile machines, e-mail, and other forms of instant communication were only a glimmer in some techno-nerdís eye.

Today, instead of two channels of communication, there are four: mail, e-mail, fax, and phone. And, all of those channels are clogged much of the time. Often, when a message must be delivered, you have to resort to hand-carrying it. So, whatís a good government relations person in an association to do? How do you get a message to Congress these days?

Channel-by-Channel Suggestions

Regular Mail. As was true when I served on Capitol Hill, incoming mail is still separated initially into "bulk" and "personalized" mail piles. While all letters and postcards (at least from the home state or district) are answered, the bulk mail literally never makes it out of the mailroom. The only thing that a member knows about quantity mail is how much was received. Personalized mail, on the other hand, is still viewed as a good gauge of public opinion, and it remains the single most influential form of Congressional communication.

By the way, donít think that bulk mail can be disguised as personalized mail. The bright, young indentured servants/legislative correspondents look at hundreds or thousands of pieces of mail in any given week. Trust me. They can always spot the difference between a generated letter and one that comes from the heart.

Phone Calls. Like traditional mail, phone calls can truly help determine the outcome of a particular issue. Calls immediately preceding a floor vote are especially useful. However, there are some important things to keep in mind when setting up a phone campaign to Congress:

  • Make sure that the caller is a constituent. Most offices, when keeping tallies, distinguish between constituents and other callers.

  • Emphasize the importance of keeping the call short and sweet. Tone, content, and delivery are all critical elements. Each and every caller must be pleasant, informed, and to the point.

  • Urge your callers to make it personal. Just as personalized letters carry more weight, so do personalized phone calls.

Most Congressional offices have a bias against forms of communication that force a staff person to interrupt what they were doing (such as to answer the phone) or tie up/consume office resources (such as phone/fax lines). Therefore, it should come as no surprise that these offices donít appreciate organized phone campaigns. If your association uses this method of communication, do so judiciously, and only after careful consideration of the alternatives.

Facsimile Broadcasts. Before e-mail, the most cost-effective form of instant communication with members of Congress was a facsimile transmission. In the initial days of slow fax machines and curly, coated fax paper, unsolicited faxes to Congressional offices were often resented because they interfered with solicited faxes. Even as transmission speeds improved and plain-paper machines became the norm, the sheer quantity of faxes often led members to take actions such as installing additional fax machines with unlisted numbers.

The problem with facsimile broadcasts is that this form of communication costs the recipient something of value. Every incoming fax consumes paper and toner, and ties up the fax line. Although opinion on this point varies widely from office to office, most Congressional staffers will tell you that faxes should be reserved either for solicited communications or for an occasional urgent message sent by the head of an association on behalf of its entire membership.

Distribution of a member of Congressí fax number with instructions to "send them a barrage of faxes," is a grassroots lobbying technique that is doomed to make far more enemies than friends.

E-mail. Those of you who have read this far expecting me to tell you "e-mail is the solution" are about to be sorely disappointed. E-mail is even less effective than regular bulk mail. At least incoming snail mail can be sorted in the mailroom. With e-mail there is no way for a legislative correspondent to distinguish (without reading each and every message), which e-mail is like a bulk mail postcard and which is like an individualized first-class letter. Thus, in most offices they treat all generated e-mail as if it were bulk mail.

While quantity e-mail ó like quantity bulk mail or phone calls ó can help run up the tally before a major vote, be forewarned that the price to be paid can be quite substantial.

Effective Lobbying Still Requires an Individualized Approach

Many eons ago, when I was a legislative assistant on Capitol Hill, grassroots lobbying techniques were in their infancy. It was rare, indeed, to see an organized letter-writing campaign. A quarter-century later, lobbying has come virtually full circle. Grassroots campaigns are so commonplace that they clog all of the channels going into a Congressional office, save one: the front door.

Individual contacts made by people with an established relationship remain the most effective way of persuading a member of Congress to take one action or another.

As a registered lobbyist and organizer of many Congressional communications campaigns, I have found that the following techniques still work on Capitol Hill:

  • Get to know the legislative assistants (LAs). Congressional staff assistants wield enormous influence. Whether you see them personally or send a written communication, you need to know them all on a first-name basis.

  • Send information through their preferred channel: regular mail, fax, or as an e-mail attachment.

  • Get your communications noticed. Once you know how each LA prefers to receive information, you must figure out how to ensure that your correspondence rises above the rest. Content, style, and brevity are all important elements.

  • Ask and then listen to what they tell you about what works. Cast nothing in concrete. Effective Congressional communication campaigns require constant fine-tuning.

Many trade and professional associations count Congressional relations among their essential priorities. For these associations and other organizations, figuring out how to communicate effectively with members of the House and Senate is, and will remain, a major challenge. Given the ever-increasing cacophony of calls, letters, faxes, and e-mails, just being heard above the noise is a significant victory.


  © 2008 Fred H. Hutchison. All Rights Reserved.

Edited on: May 20, 2006