Tips for Communicating Effectively with Public Officials
1. Contact the Right People
When deciding which public officials to contact, consider two questions:
- Whose views are likely to influence others in government?
- Who has a particular reason to listen to my opinion on this matter?
With respect to affecting Muslim public affairs, the most influential public officials are likely to be those dealing directly with issues affecting public life, and office holders responsible for certain portfolios. Also, the Senate/House of Representatives members responsible for your constituency should be most interested in hearing your views about issues relating to your concerns. You might know other national, regional or local legislators or officials through Mosque, Islamic organization, community or professional contacts who would also be particularly open to your opinions.
2. Visit or Letter?
Meeting with a public official is usually the best way to get your views across. It gives you a chance to get feedback and to respond to questions or concerns. If you plan to visit an official, call her or his office in advance to arrange an appointment. (If you do this a week or more in advance, you may want to call the day before to reconfirm.) Schedule conflicts may prevent the person from seeing you when you want, but try to negotiate a mutually agreeable time and date. Senate/House members are supposed to make themselves available for meetings in their constituency offices during the Senatorial constituency period, so ask your constituency representatives for appointments during that period. Ministers and other public officials are more likely to agree to meet you if you involve Mosque or reputable Islamic organization officials in your delegation.
If you are not able to arrange a suitable meeting with a particular official, you can write to the person instead. Ask the official to respond to your letter and offer to provide more information on request.
3. Organize Your Argument
Whether you are visiting or writing, decide what the most important messages to communicate are. The points you choose to emphasize in a letter or visit will depend on many factors: what arguments you find most convincing, what you know about the official you are contacting, your specific needs and experiences, how well prepared you feel you are to raise particular issues, etc. Think about what arguments are likely to be the most persuasive to the person you are contacting. Make sure you get these key points across in your visit or letter.
If you are planning a group visit, get together before to agree on what you want to say. You might want to jot down some "talking points" and make specific members of the group responsible for raising each one. Pick someone to act as facilitator who can introduce the members of the group, get the discussion started, ensure that all of your points come out, and express the group's thanks at the end of the visit. You can also ask someone to take notes on the responses you receive and any commitments to further action (on either side).
4. Leave a Record of Your Concerns
It is a good idea to take something written to leave at the end of your visit. This could be an article from a newspaper or magazine, (In a long article, it may help to highlight important passages.) Or it could be a memorandum you have prepared or even just a summary of the points you planned to raise. Such documents will remind the official of the issues you raised after you have gone.
5. Follow Up
There may be more to do after you write or visit. It is helpful if you let MPAC know what you have done. If you can, send a copy of your letter or a brief report on your visit to us so we may learn from your experience. If, during a visit, you have offered to supply additional information on any matter, make sure that you do this. Has the official offered a further meeting or promised to report to you on anything? If so, someone should be responsible for following this up.
Determining When to Write, Call or Meet
There are a variety of ways to communicate with government officials. Ideally, you should attempt to schedule meetings with key officials to introduce yourself and your organization/coalition. Such meetings allow for an immediate and personal exchange of information, and provide an opportunity to begin building a rapport with government officials.
While face-to-face meetings can be the most effective way of communicating, they are also the most difficult to arrange. For this reason, meeting requests should be reserved for critical times and priority issues.
The most popular form of direct communication with public officials is a written letter. For urgent or immediate issues, telephone calls, faxes and e-mails can quickly inform the concerned official about your position and convey important information. These forms of communication have limited effectiveness unless they are part of a focused campaign and/or followed up with letters from your organization supporters and members.
While all communications should be direct, concise, simple and polite, there is no single method that is appropriate for all situations. The form of communication your organization uses to contact public officials will depend on:
- Timeliness and importance of the message
- Number of points you want to communicate
- Amount of information per message to be conveyed
- Type of information
- Number of people conveying the message
- Need for face-to-face contact and an exchange of ideas with officials
- Your organization’s available resources
Now is Your Chance:
Meeting with Elected Officials
Meeting with elected officials in person is an opportunity to make personal contact with decision-makers and convey your position in a persuasive and animated manner. A lobby visit allows you to tell your Representative what you think about a certain issue or bill and ask her/him to take positive action.
Here are some suggestions for a successful lobby visit:
Before the Meeting:
Request a meeting in writing with specific times and dates. Follow up with a call to the scheduler or secretary to confirm the meeting.
Make sure to convey what issue or bill you would like to discuss.
Decide on talking points to express your most important ideas.
Set a goal for the meeting. Do you want the Representative to vote for or against a bill or introduce legislation? During the Meeting:
Keep it short and stick to your talking points.
Take the time to thank the elected official for, e.g., past votes in support of your issues.
Provide personal and local examples of the impact of the legislation.
Be honest and don't claim to know more than you do about an issue. You don't have to be the expert, just a committed and active constituent.
Set a deadline or timeline for response.
After the Meeting:
Write a thank you letter to the legislator.
Send any materials and information you offered.
Follow up on deadlines and if they are not met, set up others. Be persistent to develop your key messages:
- BRAINSTORM. Think freely and jot down all pieces of information you wish to communicate.
- SELECT KEY MESSAGES. Identify the most important ideas. Repeat the process until your list is down to three items.
- IDENTIFY SUPPORTING DATA. Review your brainstorming ideas and background materials for information that provides support to your key messages.
Scheduling Meetings with Public Officials
Meeting with government or public officials or their staff is an effective way to convey a message about a specific policy, legislative or other issues. Below are some suggestions to consider when planning a visit to a government official.
Plan Your Visit Carefully:
Decide in advance what you hope to achieve and who you need to meet with in order to achieve your goal.
Make an Appointment:
When attempting to meet with an elected or appointed official, if necessary, book appointment with secretary or scheduler. Explain your purpose and whom you represent. It is easier for staff to arrange a meeting if they know what you wish to discuss and your relationship to any critical issue or interests represented by the official.
When calling, be prepared to briefly explain the purpose of the meeting, the estimated amount of time you will need, and the names and affiliations of the attendees. Be flexible; the official may prefer to meet with you only at a place and time convenient to him or her. If he or she is unable to meet with you, ask to meet with the staff member responsible for your issue.
Lobbying Tip: Staff Are Important and Influential
Because of time constraints, most government officials rely heavily on their staffs. If you cannot see the official personally, remember that it is as important to build good relations with the staff as it is to build good relations with the official.
Do your research. Understand the official’s background, political philosophy and previous positions and activities on the issue of concern to you.
Understand Your Issue:
Prepare for the meeting in advance. Bring copies of any fact sheets and position papers that help explain or support your position, and be prepared to leave these materials with the official and his or her staff. You should never bring documents you are not prepared to leave behind.
Be a Good Educator:
Government officials are required to take positions on many different issues. Often, they may lack important details about the pros and cons of a particular matter. Your role is to help educate the official by sharing information that demonstrates why your issue is important.
Government officials, particularly state legislators and Senate members, want to represent the best interests of their constituents. Show them how supporting your position does so. Where it is appropriate, ask for a commitment and describe the connection between what you are requesting and the interests of the official’s constituency. If you are meeting with a Federal government official, then establish the connection between your position and public good.
Be Prompt and Patient:
When it is time to meet with an official, be punctual, patient and flexible. Government officials have hectic schedules, so it’s not uncommon for a meeting to be interrupted, delayed or canceled. If the official is unable to have a full discussion, be willing to continue your meeting with the staff.
Get to the reason for the meeting quickly. Idle conversation takes precious time away from substantive discussion. Always be the one to conclude the meeting. Try not to go past the appointed time, even if the official does not appear to be rushed.
Be Direct and Personal:
Be clear on what you are requesting and ask directly for his or her support. Don’t just recite the issue paper or fact sheet. Instead, it is better to describe the personal impact of government decision on the issues you have raised on Muslims, or your business, the community, and the state or region. One way to make that impact clear is to arrange for the official or staff members to tour the community if the issue is community related.
Summarize the Meeting:
If any commitments are made, summarize them up at the end of the meeting to make sure that everyone understands what has been decided: Keep future developments in mind by offering to provide further information. Before the meeting ends, confirm who on the official’s staff will be handling these issues.
Say "Thank You":
After the meeting, follow up with a "thank you" letter. Include any additional information that was requested and a brief summary of your understanding of the outcome of the meeting.
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