I've worked for a state representative for a couple of years, so I have firsthand experience with what works, what doesn't and why. Before that I was associated with one of the largest, most effective single issue advocacy organizations and was able to learn from some masters of the art. Below are my suggestions on tips and techniques that are most (and least) effective.
- Works: building a personal relationship with your legislator. If they know you, they are more likely to give careful thought and consideration to your ideas and suggestions.
- Fails: "Copy and Paste" emails. We get those from time to time when the leader of some advocacy group persuades their followers to contact their legislators. If you got tons of the same emails, would you read them all? If they are not signed with the sender's name and address, they get dismissed out of hand.
- Works: snail mail. Next to an appointment to personally discuss an issue, snail mail gets read. For best results, it comes from a constituent, is one page, and personal. Tell the legislator what the issue is that you want them to know about and what you want them to do. Always offer to discuss it with them personally and include your contact information.
- Fails: threats. "If you don't vote (for)(against) XXX, I will (vote against you)(tell all my friends how much I hate you), etc." Hint: you attract more flies with honey than you do with vinegar. Contrary to what some people think, legislators are human, too. Like most people, they want to be liked, respected and appreciated. Nobody wants to be hated, insulted or denigrated. Using those things to get what you want rarely, if ever works.
- Works: personal meetings. Contact the legislator's staff and schedule a meeting in their office. Let the staffer suggest the date and time. Fifteen minutes is best. Less time isn't long enough to get their undivided attention or to get your point across. Asking for more might be harder for them to accommodate between committee meetings, district time, legislative session meetings, etc.
- Fails: "drop in" meetings. If you plan to go to your state capitol, visit the legislature and drop in unannounced on your representative, don't. They may not have time to see you because they are supposed to meet with somebody who made an appointment (see above), have another commitment, etc. You might catch them, you might not. Think about how you may have felt when an out of town relative dropped by unannounced. Your legislator might feel the same way.
- Works: be nice to your legislator's staff. They can help you get into see your representative or even support your point of view if you treat them nicely. Getting on their bad side will do nothing to advance your cause.
- Fails: goofy t-shirts. Unless you have a couple of hundred people wearing them who show up at the same time when important legislation is having a hearing or a vote, this technique is of questionable value. Huge numbers make an impression of popular support. Just a few would harm the cause by drawing attention to the notion that the cause doesn't have much support. Instead, professional attire with a button or ribbon is better.
- Works: having a professional appearance. Not just in dress, but in any handouts you provide. If I have to explain why this is important, consider how you appraise people based on a first impression.
- Fails: not doing your homework. Know what committees that are pertinent to your cause that your legislator is serving on. For example, if you are advancing legislation pertaining to diabetes, you want to focus on those who serve on health related committees. If it will cost money, talk to the appropriation committee members. To avoid roadblocks in the legislative process talk to rules committee members. Most important of all: committee chairmen. Their ability to move (or stop) legislation should never, ever be underestimated. If they support what you want, that is huge.
- Works: appropriate follow-up. Always leave your contact information with your legislator's staff. Give the legislator a business card. Always send a hand written thank you note after a personal meeting. No, you shouldn't have to thank them for doing their job (as you see it) but it is a nice thing to do, takes minimal effort and adds to the positive impression they will have for you and your cause.
- Works: knowing what you are talking about. Not just your issue, but all of the legislation under consideration that is pertinent to it. Know where each bill is in the legislative process and what is coming next. Know the legislative process, i.e.: study committee - bill drafting - introduction - committee assignments & referrals - hearings/meetings - votes... The time to reach out to legislators is before an item comes before them, not after. A farmer has to cultivate before he plants, then weeds and finally harvests. The legislative process works the same way.
- Works: social media - to the extent that the legislator knows and follows it. You can complain all you want that they need to get into the 21st century. Younger ones will place credence on it, while many older ones are happily oblivious. If you think tweets are more important than face-to-face interactions, you are mistaken.
- Fails: putting all your legislative eggs into a social media basket. Though useful in many cases, don't mistake a hashtag as the be all and end all. Just like any marketer uses a media mix to sell their product, to sell your cause you need a mix of personal contact, correspondence, social media and grassroots action.
- Works: having a presence at all pertinent committee meetings. Check the legislative calendar to see when your bill is going to be heard. Arrive early and be prepared to give your elevator speech to committee members before the meeting/hearing begins.
- Fails: speaking before a committee meeting/hearing without practice and preparation. As Abraham Lincoln famously said, "Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak out and remove all doubt."
If I could put all of this into a nutshell, I'd say this: do your homework, follow the Golden Rule, and have a diversified messaging portfolio.