If you want to get involved, remember these tips.
When should I contact my representative?
Always! It is never a bad time to contact your representative. There are just some times that are more important than others.
Before you begin
- You may not be an expert on agricultural policy, but you are the expert on your experience and your community. NEVER underestimate that.
- Everything, from how you communicate, to how you dress, to what words you use is a tactic in getting what you are advocating for. Be aware and focus on what is effective, not what might be satisfying in the moment, make a big statement, or get you followers on social media.
Never make assumptions
- Never underestimate the importance of ANY person in the member’s office either in D.C. or the district office. Often it is the staffers who are actually writing the legislation and advising the member on how to vote. The person who is answering phones today may be the Chief of Staff next month.
- Do not assume that the person you are talking to does or does not understand the issue you are talking about. Staffers often carry wide-ranging portfolios. They may have no idea about the program you are talking about or they may have written the legislation. Be prepared for both.
How to have the most impact
- Communication will be paid attention to depending on two things; if you are a constituent, and the amount of effort it took for you to send a message. Make it clear up front if you are a constituent or if you are connected in some way to the member’s district.
- The more effort you take to make an ask and connect it to your story in your own words, the more it will be paid attention to. Actions that take little effort, like signing a card, forwarding an email, or signing a petition will have very little, if any, impact.
- The greatest impact is made by developing a relationship with the member or the member’s staff over time with regular communication. Send them your newsletters. Invite them to your events or out to your farm. When they do something good, thank them publicly.
- Always be prepared to talk in terms of jobs, economic impact, and numbers of voters you touch. If you are a farmer with a CSA, how many people does your farm employ (including yourself) and how many people does it feed? How much money flows through your operation? Remember that it is a small business, and you are an entrepreneur.
Always do your homework
- Demonstrate your passion and how important an issue is to you by doing your homework and knowing the status of bills or programs you are communicating about, including numbers and sponsors.
- Do your homework to make sure your ask is specific to something the member can act on. Don’t ask a member to support legislation in another chamber or that is being seen in a different committee, unless there is something they can do.
- Never say you know something if you don’t. It is fine to say “I don’t know. Let me get back to you on that.” And then do so.
For written communication
- Physical letters are still being tested for toxins or other bad stuff, and that process takes a very long time. If the communication is time sensitive, send it by email or fax rather than post.
- Your own writing will have more of an impact. When offices get multiples of the same card, letter or email, they will often disregard all of them.
- Petitions are a way to show broad support, but are not the best way for your voice to be heard and are often ineffective. Take the time to send something personal.
- Have someone else proofread your writing for clarity and tone.
- Do not send angry or threatening communications. If you are heated up about an issue, write what you want, calm down, and then start over. Angry communications do not show respect and understanding for both the issue and the process, and demonstrate that you are not to be taken seriously.
For phone calls
- Always be polite, clear and brief.
- Let the person handling the call know at the beginning if you are a constituent. Say “I live in the Congressman’s District and…”
- Make your ask specific to something the member can do. Don’t ask them to support legislation in the other chamber or that is being seen in a different committee, unless there is something they can do.
- Don’t rant, and don’t threaten. Unless you have a major campaign to back up and you are doing it as a well planned tactic, it doesn’t work. State opposition clearly and respectfully.
- Make your ask specific, with a specific bill or program, that you can hold a member accountable to. For instance, “Please support XYZ program at this level” rather than “I want a farm bill that is good for farmers.”
- Be brief. Members are very busy and will quickly transition from being grateful for your input to being annoyed at being kept on the phone.
For visits to member’s office
- Be early and dress appropriately. Your clothing choice doesn’t have to be a power suit, but it does need to show respect and reflect who you are. Be careful of how you talk in the waiting room.
- Focus on one or two major issues and never more than three. Laundry lists are not effective.
- Prioritize your message in case there are changes in schedule or location. Member may be held up, called away or ask you to walk with them to their next meeting. Use whatever time you get, but get the most important message out first.
- A meeting with a staffer may become a quick meeting with the member, usually for a handshake and a quick picture. Be ready with a 15 second “elevator pitch” that you can deliver over a handshake.
- Do not speak disparagingly of other groups or people who disagree with you. Do not assume that they share your analysis. Stick to the specifics of what you are there to talk about.
- Do speak positively about the issue you are there to discuss.
- Do speak positively about the member, thanking them for something they have done, supported, or that you share their interest in. “I know both of us are concerned about jobs in rural communities.”
- Find something that you agree about and connect on, especially people or places in common. “I know you taught at Lincoln Middle School. My cousin went there.”
- Do not allow member to distract you from what you are there to communicate. Sometimes staffers will ask about completely different subjects and refocus the conversation, either because something else is on their mind or as a diversion tactic. Be polite and respectful, but come back to why you are there.
- Never give member any written document that is longer than one page, front and back, including pictures and graphics. If you can’t explain it effectively in one page length, you can’t explain it. Provide more detail if requested.
- Everyone in the office is very busy. Thank them for their time and their attention.
- Follow up and develop relationships. This is a marathon, not a sprint. The more you invest, the greater the possibility that you will be taken seriously when you make an ask. Thank the member. And if they do something you asked them to do, thank them again, and publicly.
If You’re a Farmer
The story of your farm’s experience with Farm Bill programs is the most powerful advocacy tool around. It is critically important you show your representatives how the proposed Farm Bill could negatively or positively impact your operation. First, highlight specifics about your farm such as what you sell, how many people you employ (include yourself and family members) and how many people you feed. If there is something special about your story, be sure to mention that as well. For example:
“My name is XX and I produce mixed vegetables and livestock on our family’s farm in Onslow County. I am proud to work the land that my Grandfather saved and purchased. We now employ 15 people and feed hundreds of our neighbors through our roadside stand.”
Second, can you share your experience in relation to a specific Farm Bill program? If so, describe it.
- Did a conservation program help you make improvements on your farm?
- Did you receive a grant for an improvement to your farm that helped you reach new markets?
- Do you rely on land-grant universities or organizations (like RAFI) who receive grants to provide technical assistance?
- Did a USDA loan or loan guarantee help you buy your farm?
- Did a disaster assistance program help you recover after a storm?
Here’s an example for how to take a story from your farm and translate it into a policy ask:
“In 2014, my family received a Value-Added Producer Grant from USDA, and it helped us put in a new packing shed to process vegetables so we can sell directly into schools. That grant allowed us to bring our daughter back after graduating from NC State, and we now have the next generation on the farm. This Farm Bill cuts VAPG funding, and I urge you to vote against it.”
And as always, thank them for their attention.
On adversarial relationships
Disagreeing can be done in a friendly, respectful way that allows ongoing relationships. Even with demonstrations of political opposition, there can be respect and dialogue can be kept open. But sometimes people or groups cannot develop relationships with a member or their office, and views are so far apart or actions are so damaging that the only option is to be adversarial. This is a major decision that should be made as a last resort, and with great consideration of the long-term campaign goal and potential outcomes. It should go without saying that threats of violence or harm should never be made, even in jest or hyperbole.
Adversarial actions include:
- Political threats
- Disruption of office functioning or public appearances
- Messaging of personal attacks on the member’s character
- Acts of civil disobedience
Often adversarial actions are actions of witness – demonstrating opposition and making a statement of objection regardless of the outcome – rather than actions of change – working toward effective compromise and solutions. Once there have been actions of witness, it is very difficult, unless done very carefully, to come back to actions of change in that situation. The point is that these tactics should only be taken with great consideration, coordination and planning, and never lightly.