Practical Communications Tips

To communicate effectively with legislators, certain guidelines apply no matter where you meet.

Do these:

  • Identify yourself. Make sure the legislator understands who you are and which school district you represent.
  • Be brief. Get to the point quickly, and be specific.
  • Know what you’re talking about. Explain the facts, and understand the opposition’s point of view.
  • Use a local angle. Explaining how a bill will positively or negatively affect the local school district can be very persuasive. Remember that you’re not only the legislator’s constituent, you’re also a fellow elected official.
  • Show respect. Be positive. Remember to compliment the legislator’s successes, and thank him or her. Although you are both elected officials, some legislators may follow an unspoken sense of hierarchy between local and state representatives, statewide officials, and federal elected officers.
  • Communicate often. Be friendly. Keep in touch with legislators year-round, not just during the legislative session when you want something. Invite your elected representatives to attend school board meetings, special events, workshops, and other events.
  • Get to know the legislative staff. It’s important to become acquainted with the staff member who handles public education issues. A lawmaker’s aide can be a big help in getting access to the representative and support for an issue.
  • Recognize effort. Thank legislators in writing when they vote as you asked. Let lawmakers know their support on your district’s behalf is appreciated.
  • Thank legislators for meeting with you and for their support or consideration, even if they are against you. You may need their vote in the future on another matter.
  • Consider compromise. Stake out your position, but if a legislator makes a reasonable request or offers an alternative to the position, take the compromise into consideration.
  • Choose battles wisely. Decide from the start if an issue is important enough to risk ruining a personal relationship with a legislator or whether you would rather keep the relationship long-term and let the issue go.
  • Notify the legislator of a deadline. When writing lawmakers, tell them where the bill you’re writing about is in the process and when action is scheduled. Give legislators all the information you can to make it easier for them to support your position.
  • Be sensitive to partisan politics, but always try to come across as nonpartisan.
  • Use correct forms of addresses.
  • Type your fact sheets, letters, and testimony. Date them. Be sure they include how you can be reached.
  • Establish a reputation for reliability and credibility.
  • Be reasonable, and realize that everyone thinks his or her issue is the most important one being considered.
  • Know other issues or problems the legislator is working on, and help him or her when you can.
  • Offer to be a resource for specific information related to the district.
  • Look for friends in unusual places. In politics, a friend—Republican, Democrat, liberal, or conservative—works with you on a specific issue even if he or she opposes you on every other issue.

Don’t do these:

  • Don’t be rude. Threats, rudeness, or other inappropriate behavior will not help your cause.
  • Don’t be bullied. Don’t let yourself be intimidated by legislators’ authority or status. But recognize and respect their responsibilities.
  • Don’t underestimate legislators. With rare exceptions, they are honest and intelligent and want to do the right thing.
  • Don’t distort the facts. Present your position honestly and thoughtfully. If you don’t know the answer to a legislator’s question, say so. Then find the information and call back as soon as possible.
  • Don’t assume the legislator or staff member has read or remembers something you sent. Lawmakers and their staffs are inundated with volumes of information. So, if you have something you want read, make it brief. It’s also a good idea to give copies to the legislator’s aide, who will probably be the one who reviews the submission.
  • Don’t break a promise. If you tell the legislator you will get information or that you will do something in exchange for support, follow through.
  • Don’t change your position. If the legislator has publicly committed to a position you encouraged, don’t change your mind about it later, unless the bill was significantly amended or local circumstances have changed. Let your legislator know how the bill has changed and why your position has modified. Recommend he or she does the same.
  • Don’t give inaccurate information.
  • Don’t make moral judgments based on a vote or an issue.
  • Don’t begin by saying, “As a citizen and taxpayer....”
  • Don’t say, “I hope this gets by your secretary....”
  • Don’t send form letters.
  • Don’t write members of the House when the vote is in the Senate, and vice versa.
  • Don’t ignore your legislator, and then contact one from another district for help with your issue.
  • Don’t complain publicly or privately about your legislator or a member of his or her staff.
  • Don’t hold grudges or give up.
  • Don’t interrupt legislators when they are obviously busy.
  • Don’t cover more than one subject in a contact.
  • Don’t write a letter longer than one page.
  • Don’t press for an answer on your first visit.
  • Don’t blame legislators for all the things that go wrong in government.
  • Don’t be offended if he or she forgets your name or who you are, even if it is just five minutes after your visit.
  • Don’t assume that education is at the top of the legislator’s priority list.
  • Don’t cut anyone off from contact. Don’t let a legislator consider you an enemy because you disagree. Today’s adversary could be tomorrow’s ally.