How to Make Your Voice Heard on Capitol Hill Year Round
Members of Congress value clear, concise, and informative communication from education advocates. School board members are in a good position to know what federal policies work and don’t work in the public schools. Proven means of effectively communicating with your members of Congress follow.
Write Your Members of Congress
Personal, thoughtful letters have a considerable impact on your members of Congress. When writing your letters, keep the following in mind:
- Focus on one issue or bill per letter and identify the bill by name and number.
- Express your point of view and why your legislator should be supportive. Be brief and courteous.
- Explain the local impact of the legislation.
- Ask for a response from your member of Congress.
- Use your signature and personal letterhead and mention that you are a school board member when writing an individual letter. If it is a collective letter written by the board, have the president of the board sign it. Make sure the letter is on the board’s letterhead.
- Put your return address on the letter (envelopes often get lost).
Call Your Members of Congress
Phone calls are an effective and fast way to communicate with your members of Congress, especially when a critical vote is expected to occur. Sometimes you may be able to talk directly with your member of Congress or their key education staffers and have a more substantive conversation. Other times, your calls may be tallied by the receptionist who will inform the member of Congress of given counts of constituents for and against a particular issue. When phoning your members of Congress, keep the following in mind:
- Ask to speak with the member of Congress or the legislative assistant who handles the issue, or briefly state your position to the receptionist.
- Give your name, title, and school district.
- Focus on one issue or bill. Whenever possible, identify the bill by number and name.
- Briefly state what position you want your member of Congress to take on the issue. Be prepared to give a locally based rationale for your position.
- Ask for your member’s position on the bill.
- If asked, give your address so that you can receive a written response.
Use the Media to Communicate with Congress
The press can help shape public opinion and can be one of the most influential advocacy tools. When seeking effective media strategies keep the following in mind:
- Stay local. One strong article in your hometown newspaper may be worth ten in the New York Times.
- Keep it focused. Stick to one issue at a time.
- Make sure to send press clippings to your members of Congress. A good article can have a long life.
- Don’t forget your own media outlets. Take advantage of school district newsletters, publications, radio, and cable programs to educate and get others involved in your advocacy campaigns.
- Give just the facts. Stick to what you know and never exaggerate. You can always get back to reporters after finding the right answer.
- Don’t just say it – show it. A demonstration or real-life testimonial goes a long way to illustrate your point and make it more colorful.
- Build media relationships. Get to know the education reporters and take the time to meet with editorial boards.
- Put media relations in your federal advocacy policy. Media relations should be a year-round function.
- Appoint a press spokesperson for your school board. This contact person must be fully informed about your federal advocacy agenda to know what and what not to tell reporters.
- Take advantage of all the media outlets. Congressional offices may read newspapers most often, but radio and television have a powerful impact on public opinion and should not be overlooked.
Write Letters-to-the-Editor & Opinion Editorials
Letters-to-the-editor and opinion editorials (called op-eds) written by readers are useful ways to speak out on an issue, respond to an article or editorial, or express your position in your own words. They often are read by members of Congress and can be an effective lobbying tool. When writing a letter-to-the-editor or op-ed, keep in mind the following:
- Be brief and focus on one issue. If the article is too long, the newspaper may edit out some important facts. To get an idea of how long is too long, take a look at your newspaper’s opinions page and count the words in the average letter to the editor. The average op-ed is usually longer than a letter-to-the-editor and is between 500 and 750 words.
- For a letter-to-the-editor, refer to a recent event or an article which has appeared in the newspaper and include the article’s date and title.
- When applicable, close your letter or op-ed by asking readers to contact their members of Congress or other policy makers about the issue.
- Give your address, school district, and phone number so that the newspapers can verify authorship.
- Clip your published letter-to-the-editor or op-ed and mail or fax it to your members of Congress.
Meet with Editorial Boards
There is nothing more powerful than a newspaper carrying a positive lead editorial that supports your cause. Meeting with editorial boards in advance to explain your views can be the catalyst for a favorable editorial that will help address the issue at home as well as on Capitol Hill. To facilitate a successful meeting, keep the following in mind:
- Request a formal meeting by writing a letter to the editorial page editor or by calling the editorial office. Briefly explain the issue you would like to discuss and who will be with you at the meeting.
- Go to the meeting prepared to lay the facts on the table as well as your background materials. If possible, bring the president of your school board and other leaders from a coalition, if one exists, to lend weight to the meeting.
- Although a face-to-face meeting is more effective, you can also write to the editorial page editor, send your background material, and follow-up by phone.
- When preparing the background material, try to include both the local and broader implications of the issue so the editor can see that it hits home and is of wider concern.
- Once you have made contact with members of the editorial board, keep that relationship going. Send a thank you note for the meeting and another note if they run a favorable editorial.
Invite Your Member of Congress to an Event in the District/State
During the year numerous recesses are scheduled so that members of Congress can visit their districts. Plan to take advantage of this opportunity and invite your member to an event in the district/state.
- Plan ahead. Members of Congress have very busy schedules and their calendars fill up quickly. Send your invitation several months in advance of the date for the event.
- Contact the right person. Call your member’s office to find out the proper procedure for sending an invitation. Most members have executive assistants in their Washington offices who are responsible for scheduling requests. Invitations are generally requested to be in writing. Send the invitation to the attention of the executive assistant who is responsible for the member’s calendar. This will expedite the process. Also send a copy of the letter to the member’s district office. The Washington and district offices usually coordinate when the member is travelling in the state.
- Be flexible. If at all possible, note in the invitation that you are willing to accommodate the member’s schedule.
- One possible event is to invite your members of Congress back home to visit your schools.
- You may want to also speak with the member’s communications director to help get the media to cover the event.