NMA Founder Jim Baxter knew the power of the written word. Throughout his 30-year tenure with the association Jim penned countless impactful letters to policymakers and editors following a few simple rules: keep it short, focus on one topic and make it personal. We were reminded of Jim’s common-sense approach after listening to this story on the public radio program “Marketplace.”
The piece focuses on James Pollack, a staffer for California Representative Jackie Speier, who reviews and responds to constituent letters and emails. On a particularly contentious issue, Pollack says the office can receive 2,000-4,000 emails per week. To sort through it all, he uses special software that filters out automated form letters from actual personalized email. According to the story, about two-thirds of congressional offices use the same system.
So how do you make your letter stand out? Here’s what Pollack recommends:
“I think one really well-worded, compelling letter raises a flag,” he said, especially if it’s about a piece of legislation the office might not yet be following.
Pollack said it doesn’t really matter if the letter is paper or digital. But with dozens of empty filing cabinets once used for sorting mail now sitting empty, an old-fashioned letter probably will have less competition for his attention.
Sounds like something directly out of the Jim Baxter play book. Here’s what Jim said about writing a letter in a 2009 e-newsletter:
A personal letter implies effort and thought were invested in its preparation. Its physical presence makes it difficult to easily disregard or ignore its content. It has staying power. Sure, it could be just scanned and tossed away, but that would be the exception. And, when the bill comes up for a vote, there it is, sitting in the file, reminding your state representative or state senator of how one of his/her constituents feels about this issue.
We realize that given a choice, most of us will send an email rather than sit down with pen and paper. Writing an email is certainly better than doing nothing, and the Marketplace story provides some helpful hints on how to grab the attention of a harried legislative staffer:
- Story: A congressional staffer is more likely to pay attention to a personal story from a constituent, although form letters on an issue or bill will generally be tabulated and considered.
- Impact: Explain how the issue or bill will affect you and your congressional district.
- Authenticity: Demonstrate you are a real person and a member of the representative’s or senator’s district. Members of Congress care about getting re-elected and pay more attention to comments coming from home.
- Contact: Many offices prefer email via their website forms, which tie into their software programs. Emails to a general inbox or through third-party sites might get shunted to spam.
For better or worse, election season will soon be upon us, so it’s not too soon to reach out to your elected officials with your driving concerns. Here are some additional tips on connecting with lawmakers:
On a related note, each State News page on the new www.motorists.org contains a “State Legislators, Bill Tracking” Quick Link. Clicking on it will allow you to easily track down your state legislators and track important bills. Click here to see a list of all the State News pages.