Keynote & Panel Discussion

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

4:15pm – 5:30pm

Brad Fitch (President and CEO, Congressional Management Foundation), Margie Almanza, Peter Koval

The Congressional Management Foundation will release its latest data on the impact of constituent communications on Capitol Hill. Find out which activities are most valued by Members and Hill staff. Then join our discussion, moderated by CMF’s Brad Fitch, about what these findings mean to our profession.

Have feedback on this session? We’d love to hear it! Submit it here.

Background:

The Congressional Management Foundation has been an invaluable resource for nearly 40 years. In the early 00s when the internet began changing advocacy, the CMF lent their operational and management expertise to studying how internet communications can influence Members of Congress. In 2010, they created a citizen engagement effort, The Partnership for a More Perfect Union, to enhance the understanding, relationships, and communications between citizens and Congress.

The next Congress – the 115th – will be a “perfect storm” not seen since 2009. There will be a new President, a new Congress, and many committee chairs are term limited out for 2017. Now is a critical time for building relationships and figuring out how to most effectively meet with Members and their staff. There is a blizzard of communications going up to the Hill, and advocates must differentiate their message or it’ll get lost.

How does Washington work? Some people think it’s like Schoolhouse Rock, but Hollywood and TV have distorted public perceptions and many now think it is closer to House of Cards. 21 of 50 states lack a dedicated newspaper reporter in DC covering Congress, and Rasmussen recently found that 18% of people think Congress cares what their constituents think – that’s even worse than very low approval ratings for Congress overall, even though individual Members are often much more approved-of than the body as a whole. However, 95% of Members ranked staying in touch with their constituents as important.

Learning Objectives:

1)   What do Hill staff love – and what do they hate?

  • Congressional staff report that constituents are rarely “very” prepared – most were only “somewhat” prepared, but could do better.
    • Some Hill staff have reported that they feel advocacy groups bring constituents to the Hill only to prove their worth to their members instead of actually moving the needle or making a strong policy ask.
  • Hill staff greatly appreciate prepared constituents who make for good meetings, and loathe bad meetings with unprepared constituents.
    • A bad experience is unforgettable for Hill staff: they’ve seen rude constituents, constituents who fail to tell a strong, personal story.
    • Stories have changed public policy: think of Amber alerts and Megan’s Law, pieces of legislation enacted after a tragic personal story. Staffers react to powerful stories!
  • Constituents should know what relevant committees the Member they’re meeting with sits on.
  • Constituents must make a specific public policy request. Action alerts “just for the heck of it” without a specific ask lose credibility for the group.
  • Constituents can’t read a laundry list of supported bills or list off a bunch of talking points.
  • Constituents should know the Member’s history on an issue.
    • A pitch should be customized to the Members’ philosophical views and political leanings, as well as their past actions.
  • Almost all constituents failed to bring data on the district or state impact of their issue.
    • How many people in an association are in the district? How does an industry impact the state?

2)   What influences Members?

  • Constituents must understand the potential negative consequences for the Member if they support their cause.
    • Members will get both sides from a proponent and an opponent, and constituents should be prepared to understand and admit to the potential downsides of the ask.
  • Congressional leadership is not a big factor in decisions to support or co-sponsor legislation.
    • Positions on an issue relative to other Members from that state’s delegation are more likely to be influential, and they want to know if other Members from that state are in support.
  • Staffers appreciate data that helps them make a case to their boss, including being told if there’s a companion bill in the other chamber that’s been voted on or introduced.
  • Committees are increasingly active and the position of a committee or subcommittee chair or ranking Member on a particular issue can be more influential.
  • The most important factor is the position key groups of constituents in the district or state hold on the issue.

3)   How do you get Member or staff attention?

  • In follow-ups, interactions from constituents are very effective, but they are conducted very infrequently!
    • Many staffers reported receiving a follow-up email or phone call from the lobbyist, but they rarely hear from constituents after a meeting that didn’t end definitively.
  • Follow three best-practices for communicating to Congress:
  • Limit your message to the Hill to 100 words or less: “I’m a constituent, X number of people are affected, please vote this way.”
  • Communications should be personalized. Ask advocates to individualize their communications with a personal story.
  • Practice, practice, practice! Advocates should go through at least a couple hours of training and exercises to prepare before they go up to the Hill.

Panel Thoughts:

Despite changing methods, from typewritten letters to emails to social media, the purpose for communicating with Members hasn’t yet changed, and many of the fundamentals of how to communicate hasn’t changed much, either. Preparation is important for both the issue and to find out what out what a Member is like; do they want to sit down and have a chat and hear a story, or do they just want to hear in-district data quickly?

In-district meetings are just as valuable as Hill meetings and district work periods can be very effective – the Member is often less rushed and can devote more time to hearing the constituents out. At the end of the day, most Members want to know how an issue or bill will affect their constituents – they don’t want to hear what someone else told them to say!