Some thoughts on getting to know new legislators and staff, taken from the Congressional Management Foundation blog after our recent Advocacy Leaders Network Event:
This was the resounding message in the candid commentary from a former U.S. Congressman and panel of current and former Hill staffers at the Advocacy Leaders Network’s (ALN) “Reaching Capitol Hill: The Class of 2015” workshop on Friday, March 27. After being asked a series of questions about starting a new office, scheduling Member meetings, and interacting with constituent groups, a common suggestion was given to the audience of government relations professionals: “Say ‘thank you.'”
While the advice was said alongside other important tidbits for successful constituent advocacy, expressing gratitude stood out as an effective, yet uncommon practice. Constituents flood the Capitol to explain concerns and needs, but they don’t always stop and say, “Thank you.” Thank yous can be sent after a Member co-sponsors a bill, votes on a piece of legislation favorably for your constituent group, or even joins a caucus.
When it comes to navigating the democratic process, these two words can be very powerful. “Thank yous are a good way to build relationships with Members,” said one staffer. “Because, it’s something we just don’t hear every day.”
Featured during the session was former Congressman George Nethercutt (R-WA). After speaking to the group of nearly 40 about setting up a freshman office in 1995, Congressman Nethercutt also shared a story about an advocate who frequently brought warm cookies to the Hill. He smiled when discussing the advocate, and explained to the group that though he didn’t always agree with the association representative, he was able to build a relationship with him through each policy issue and floor debate. The cookies – an expression of gratitude and celebration – helped to foster this relationship. And according to Congressman Nethercutt, the relationship lasted throughout his time in Congress.
The Congressman’s story gave the audience food for thought. No, every advocacy group can’t bring cookies to Congress, but they can show appreciation.
When asked about the types of “thank yous” to be sent to Members of Congress, the panel discouraged against presenting something grand. Basic hand-written notes were mentioned to be effective, as were positive social media posts and letters.
Other ways to build relationships with Members of Congress (both new and old) were also discussed. They include:
- Going to the Capitol during off-season times, like Swearing-In Day when many congressional offices hold open houses, to establish contact;
- Contacting staff as early as possible to get on the Member’s calendar (CMF research with House Schedulers recommends 2-4 weeks in advance);
- Providing short, easy-to-read collateral material and leave-behinds for Hill staffers to quickly refer to (1-2 pages is preferred);
- Writing emails with specific email titles, issue names, and words, so that emails are easily searchable when looked for;
- Presenting both sides of the story when discussing your particular issue with Members and staff; and
- Understanding your ask when presenting it (for example, if you ask a Member of Congress to join a Caucus know if it costs money or what is involved with membership).
The event was part of an ongoing series hosted by the Congressional Management Foundation, produced by Beekeeper Group, and sponsored by voterVOICE, and consisted of networking breaks, a panel discussion, and a roundtable exercise. The next event, “Glamorous Grasstops Advocacy: Cause Placement and Celebrity EndorsementOpens a new window,” will be held June 12, 2015 at the Beekeeper offices.