Want to reach your lawmaker? Here's how

POLITICS: 1 good tip: Ditch the form letter

January 10, 2011 

Looking for the best way to communicate your thoughts on a policy issue to a lawmaker now that the legislative session is under way? Ditch the form letter.

That’s one of several tips shared by area lawmakers polled last week.

“The good news is, it’s never been easier for citizens to communicate with legislators. And for us to respond,” said state Rep. Jim Jacks, DVancouver, one of several officials quizzed about what works and why.

E-mail has revolutionized interaction with constituents. Yet, a timely phone call or handwritten letter still works.

New U.S. Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler has worked in Olympia and Washington, D.C., for state and federal lawmakers and served three years as 18th District state representative .

“There’s nothing more important than hearing from people at home,” Herrera Beutler said. “I need that flow of information to do this job effectively.”

When that flow becomes a deluge, though, it’s a turnoff. Namely, the form letter “action alert” templates many advocacy groups use to trigger a mass e-mail response.

“If we get hundreds (of the same), I won’t read more than one,” Herrera Beutler said, and other lawmakers agreed. And a form letter reply usually follows.

So, how to tailor a truly effective message?

MAKE IT PERSONAL

“(What) caught my attention most was something that was more individual, even if it was just a two-sentence email or something handwritten,” Herrera Beutler said. It signaled that “someone (was) upset enough to take time out of their day to individually contact me,” she said.

Other lawmakers concur.

“If (constituents) really want to impress me to vote yes or not, write me a personal letter. Don’t send a mass e-mail,” said state Rep. Jim Moeller, D-Vancouver.

MAKE A POINT

“If you want specific action, you have to ask for it,” said state Rep. Tim Probst, DVancouver.

Propose a remedy, rather than merely file a complaint, Probst said.

“If it’s not something specific and actionable, a legislator may not know what to do with it,” he said.

MAKE IT QUICK

“Keep it short and concise,” Herrera Beutler advised. “It may be the first time someone has written or called. … It’s their right or prerogative” to carry on, she said. “But if they want me or one of their (state) representatives to respond, they need to do it in a rapid manner.”

The volume of contacts in Congress is stratospheric compared with in Olympia, she noted.

In fact, she expected 2,000 to 3,000 messages in waiting even before her first day in office, Jan. 5. Adding more delay, all postmarked “snail mail” to Congress is screened first for safety reasons.

“My goal is to get very quick turnaround, but people are going to need to give me a little bit of patience,” she said.

MAKE IT HANDY

“Spend some time thinking about your (e-mail) subject line,” Jacks counseled. “A subject line that says ‘Hello’ is not useful” in a flood of 300 e-mails each day, he said.

Make the topic immediately clear so a legislator or an aide can quickly sort and prioritize. A specific bill number is even better, Jacks said.

PROVIDE A PHONE NUMBER

Jacks said it’s often quicker for him to call back a constituent than spend time composing a reply.

“Always, always include your contact information,” Herrera Beutler said.

She might be eager to share that individual’s message with other legislators, but only after obtaining their approval, she said.

FIND WHAT WORKS

Each legislator has personal preferences. Jacks likes e-mail because “wherever I have my laptop, I can read it. It’s there,” he said.

Moeller suggests a fax to his Olympia office, “because all those end up on my desk,” he said. Or, a phone call still works “and it’s free,” he said, citing the toll-free Legislature message service.

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