Online Tactics: Influencing Congress and Other Decision-Makers

Updated January, 2011

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A major part of online advocacy involves direct attempts to influence decision-makers such as congressmembers, governors, the President, state legislators and corporate boards and CEOs. I’m going to focus on Congress, but many of these tactics apply to other decision-maker campaigns as well.

As when you’re dealing with reporters, often your most important role is to have a website that’s a good information resource. Hill staff are often going to start out on Google when they’re researching an issue, like the rest of us, so having relevant content that’s widely linked-to is vital. Content, once again, is key.

Next, when Hill staffers do arrive at your site, make sure that they can find what they’re looking for. General navigability is a good start, but may also usually want to have a special section of the site carved out for them.

One of your common tasks is usually going to be supporting your government relations team (or your citizen advocates and volunteers) by collecting documents that they want Hill staff to see and presenting them on a central page about an issue. You’ll usually have a short intro and a clearly-identified list of links of the documents, which might include press releases, video clips, congressional testimony, letters to Congress from supportive corporate CEOs or grassroots citizens groups, reports, factsheets, etc.

When you’re preparing information for the Hill, bear in mind that staffers often have very little time to go over the details. Presenting information in layers, with a one-sentence summary followed by an overview page and links to more information, is vital. I discuss this in more detail in the section on effective websites. For factsheets, bullets help, as does bolding key concepts. Keep those factsheets short and printable! You want them to be easy to include in a briefing book.

Also, unless you’re specifically keeping your issue pages low-profile, make sure that they’re referenced on your site front page. A staffer may remember that he or she got information from you recently but not have access to the specific URL of your news release or your issue page. Don’t make them hunt for it — they’ll go elsewhere.

Mass emails

For years, advocacy campaigns have been bombarding Congress with mass emails from supporters. Unfortunately, all the evidence points to the fact that they don’t work very well — Hill offices largely ignore them and will often treat thousands of identical messages as essentially a single message (when I worked in the Texas Capitol 15 years ago, we were already treating xeroxed mass mailings the same way).

According to research by the Congressional Management Foundation part of the problem is the simple volume of email: in 2004 alone, congressional offices received almost 200 million messages.. Besides the sheer volume of email, however, many staffers doubt the legitimacy of mass messages and even think that organizations send them out without consulting the supposed signers (though no one in the business I’ve talked with has ever HEARD of a group doing that). Some offices have grown so tired of mass emails that they’ve enabled “logic puzzles” and validation forms to restrict email to individual messages from individual constituents sent through the members’ own web pages, though the common mass-email vendors have learned how to work around these restrictions to ensure that their blast emails get through.

Outside of Congress, email campaigns can be more effective. State legislatures, governors’ offices and state and federal agencies are less used to being hit with communications from thousands of people at once and seem more responsive. At NET, I saw agencies back away from rule changes when they received a few thousand public comments and realized that people are actually watching their actions. Of course, we’ve all seen other agencies receive MILLIONS of comments and ignore them utterly.

Corporations are also likely to be more sensitive to mass emails, since they generally guard their brand integrity carefully.

With these constraints in mind, how can we get the most out of email campaigns?

  • Only allow activists to send to their own elected officials. Don’t spam Congress! Messages from outside a senator’s state or a representative’s district will be ignored, and you’ll simply be helping to poison the well for everyone.
  • Keep your messages short and focused. This applies both to your messages to your own list members asking them to take action and to the messages they’ll send to the campaign target. In your message to your list members, pay close attention to the subject line — you’re trying to sell your activists on the action.
  • Tie your message to a specific piece of legislation or agency rule. Staff will usually sort them by bill number or rule docket number and you’ll want to make it easy on them — otherwise, you’re message may fall through the cracks. Try to put the bill/rule number and name in the subject line. For agency rules, the Federal Register posting will often give the exact subject line required. General emails (“Support The Environment”) may well disappear into a black hole.
  • Encourage your activists to edit messages. Congressional staff claim in surveys to take individual messages from constituents more seriously than obvious mass messages, so make sure that the text in your message is editable. Some groups have even built online applications that let people assemble their own messages from pre-written snippets. Don’t expect too much, though: according to folks at my old vendor, the now-defunct GetActive (now rolled into Convio), fewer than 10% of the messages sent through their system got edited, since it’s so much easier for activists to send the pre-written ones.
  • Try supplementing or replacing email actions with phone calls. Again, according to Congressional Management Foundation research and plenty of anecdotal evidence, phone calls from constituents get more attention. Either ask activists only to call or call in addition to sending an email, but be sure to include their congressmember’s name in the message — don’t create more work for the congressional switchboard operators.
  • Replace emails with faxes. With a big campaign, this will get expensive fast, however, and seems to have fallen out of favor.
  • Print the messages out and bring them in by hand. Instead of sending immediately, or in addition to sending immediately, store the messages in a database, do a mail-merge and print them out. Then, sort by member and bring them to the Hill. Obviously, this is a huge amount of work and is only practical if you’re trying to reach a handful of legislators, such as the members of a particular committee. Whipping out a stack of constituent letters in a meeting with staff can help raise awareness of an issue, though. Be sure to include the constituent’s name and address in each printed message.

Let’s Get Social

Like seemingly everybody else these days, plenty of Hill offices have taken to Facebook and Twitter, creating new channels to reach those ever-in-demand decisionmakers. Retweets, @replies and Direct Messages are all ways to reach Congressmembers and their staffs who are on Twitter; see the relevant chapter for more information. Politicians’ Facebook walls have also turned out to be juicy advocacy targets, since people have learned to flood them with comments around a particular issue. As soon as a member suffers this kind of attention, though, his or her office is likely to turn off people’s ability to comment without filtering, making it a tactic with a short shelf-life.

Tell me more!

See the section on building and maintaining email lists for tips on getting more activists on your list in the first place.

See also:

Next: Working with the Media

Written by
Colin Delany
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  • “Only allow activists to send to their own elected officials. Don’t spam Congress! Messages from outside a senator’s state or a representative’s district will be ignored, and you’ll simply be helping to poison the well for everyone.”

    Very true… and people forget how smart antispam software there is on email servers these days. Especially for the large providers like gmail, aol, verizon, etc…

    Basically this means you’ll spend your time and money trying to make a difference, sending tons of email, but within seconds, the email server filters it out because you didn’t send it properly – too much too quickly, not from a trusted source (using things like aweber or constant contact services help here), etc.

    Just wanted to point out that not only is sending the message to the wrong people a waste of time and money, sending the message the wrong way is the same.

  • The only expense involved is hiring people to write the pieces and send them out. But, in a political campaign, this is usually done by volunteers. Both e-mails and blogs are easy to set up and easy to publish, with minimal HTML skills needed. Also social networking sites are famous nowadays and i guess it is quite effective as well.

    Michelle Rowe

  • “Staff will usually sort them [messages] by bill number or rule docket number and you’ll want to make it easy on them — otherwise, you’re message may fall through the cracks”

    And this is really a wise thing to do. This saves time and really makes it more probable for your message to be read and given due attention. Now that puts the effort you’ve exerted into good use, doesn’t it? Hence, it is always good to hope that all who want their voices be heard to organize their words really well.