COMMUNICATING WITH LEGISLATORS

Assuming that you are beginning your journey to becoming a key contact, we’ll start with finding out who your legislators are. This process takes less than a minute and involves only your putting your street address, city, and zip code into the form. With that information, you’ll be able to access information on delegate and state senator with links to who represents you in Congress as well. For our purposes, we are interested in your developing a relationship with your delegate and state senator. You’ll find out basic information about them on their websites, which are linked to the contact page.

You can contact your legislators in person or by snail or electronic mail, telephone, or fax. Some legislators also have Twitter accounts and Facebook pages or are on Plaxo or LinkedIn. The social media sites are generally not used to communicate on a specific issue but do help to link faces with names and causes, very important components of the advocacy process. Additionally, the Virginia House of Delegates and the Senate of Virginia have Twitter accounts, VAHouse and VASenate.

Each legislator has a webpage on the General Assembly website. These pages can be reached by going to the General Assembly website and clicking on House of Delegates or Senate on the drop down menus.

  • If you are telephoning an office, be sure to select the district office between Sessions or the Capitol office during Sessions.

  • If you are emailing legislators, click on the email hyperlinks on the webpages. Some have district email addresses, while others use only their General Assembly email addresses.

  • If you are snail mailing, again be sure to use the correct address. Use the Richmond capitol address during the Session and district addresses between Sessions. The correct etiquette for addressing legislators in the body of snail mails can be found here.

  • Same holds true for faxing legislators. Check for the correct fax number.

 

What type of communication is preferable? The best answer is, “It depends,” but here are some “rules.”

  • Use snail mail to send thank-you notes after you have visited with the legislators either during the Session or between Sessions.

  • Otherwise, any other form of communication can be used for advocacy in setting up appointments, changing appointments, communicating positions on bills and other issues, and so forth. Ask the legislative aides or legislators which type of communication they prefer and use that form.

  • The important thing is that communication is essential; otherwise, how would your legislators know where you stand?

  • Another rule to follow is to communicate ONLY with your legislators; do not send out “blast” emails to all 140 members of the General Assembly. That only irritates them and may damage your cause.

  • The same thing almost invariably holds for “petitions.” Be very careful about signing these, although there are times when petitions are entirely appropriate.

 

When is the best time to communicate with legislators?

The first meeting with your legislators

If you are just starting to build a relationship with your legislators, the best time to make that first contact is between Sessions; that is, sometime after March/April and before Christmas. Your legislators are in their home districts, and they have time to devote to getting to know their constituents. Remember: they also may have day jobs, so finding the right moment for a meeting may be difficult, but it will not be impossible. Here are some ideas of places to meet:

  • Their district office

  • Their workplace (after hours or while they’re on a break)

  • A restaurant (you pick up the tab)

  • Associated with any activity that you know that participate in—a ball game, at the gym, after church, and so forth.

 

Remember the maxim: Get to know them before you need them. Plan to meet for no more than 15 minutes. Make the first meeting a general one where your aim is to introduce yourself, tell about what you do, and in general, your concerns about what you do. Try not to ask for anything at this meeting!

After the first meeting, write a snail mail letter and thank the legislator. You may also want to thank the legislative aide as well, because that person has probably arranged for the meeting.

 

Subsequent contacts with your legislators

As you do with any of your professional contacts, communicate with your legislators when:

  • You read about something they have done that has a special reference to your meeting (do not contact them EVERY time you see their name in the paper—make the contact relevant);

  • You come across an item of interest that will help inform your legislators about issues of concern, for example, a research article on a specific type of athletic injury;

  • You see them out on the street or at the market. Go up to them and reintroduce yourself, if need be.

 

Each time you make the contact with your legislators, they will remember you better, putting the name and face together.

 

You will also probably receive invitations to fundraisers in the district. If you can afford a ticket, by all means go.

 

Contacting your legislators when you need them

This meeting is much less of a social meeting. It’s designed to communicate information about a specific concern, it’s usually attached to an “ask” of some sort, and it has the potential for political tension (especially if the issue is controversial, your legislator has a differing ideological perspective, and/or there are other constituents who will likely communicate the opposite viewpoint from yours). Here are some general guidelines for these meetings:

  • Be prepared. Know your topic. You will probably have some “talking points” or a “fact” sheet to leave with the legislators. Know these fairly well. Remember, you know more about athletic training and ATCs than do your legislators. The fact sheets in this guide will help you make your points about VATA priorities. Organize your thoughts in advance, and keep your presentation relatively short (if you’re meeting during the Session, plan on 5 minutes).

  • Be prepared with some anecdotes. Statistics and studies are useful, and you will want to share some of them, too, if you have them. But legislators are human, too, and they respond to stories that are compelling and demonstrate clearly your position. From your own perspective, talk about a story that demonstrates the issue you are advocating.

 

  • Stick to the issue. There are a lot of issues that confront you everyday, but if you raise them, you run the risk of conveying that there is more on your agenda than what you are addressing to the legislators.

 

  • Be certain that the opposition will minimize your points, so come prepared. Whatever the cause you are advancing, your opposition is likely to talk about such things as “unnecessary interference of the government in peoples’ lives,” “driving up the cost of care,” “driving me out of business,” etc. At all times you want to emphasize the advantages to the health and safety of Virginians in whatever cause you are advancing for VATA. Emphasize “good public policy.”

 

  • Your legislators probably will have questions. You should be able to field any questions that the legislators ask. If you don’t know the answer to a question, feel free to say that you don’t know the answer. This is much better than guessing and getting it wrong. Promise to find out the answer and let the legislators know. Then, follow up and do it. One way to find out answers to the questions is to contact the VATA Government Affairs Chairperson or Committee member, or the VATA lobbyist.

 

  • Do not debate your legislator on other issues like taxes or transportation. While these topics may come up during the meeting, they are not the purpose of your visit.

 

  • Always be completely honest. Your future credibility with legislators depends on honest and accurate information. You can be sure that if you intentionally or unintentionally mislead a legislator, the legislator will find out. This creates a very great risk that the legislator will not believe anything else that you may assert in the future.

 

  • If your legislators don’t agree with your position, pleasantly agree to disagree. You might ask if there is any information you could provide that would change their minds. Do not get angry, frustrated, or threaten them in any way (i.e. “I won’t vote for you.”). There will be a time in the future where you want the legislators to agree with you on another issue, and if you have burned your bridges, you may lose any future opportunity.

  • If you are meeting with legislators during the General Assembly session, do not make any contribution to the legislator or candidate’s campaign during your visit. Do not promise anything in return for the legislator’s agreement with your position. These not only look like bribes, and effectively are, and could get you and the legislators in trouble.

 

  • Listen carefully to the legislators’ statements of their positions on this issue. Some legislators are masters at sounding like they agree with you when, in fact, that is not what they have said. Do not construe general statements (i.e. “I have always held athletic trainers in the highest regard”) to be support. The only way to know a legislator’s position is to ask directly (i.e. “Will you vote for this initiative [or against the initiative]?”) and then listen carefully to the answer. Many legislators will defer until they see what the “money” committee recommends or the testimony that is offered in committee meetings Let them know you will keep in touch, will send them a copy of materials in support of your position (if you have them), and would like to have the opportunity to respond to the opposition’s statements.

In addition to the material found here, the NATA has a wonderful toolkit on their website that describes other advocacy gems. Access it!

The VATA is committed to improving the quality of health care for Virginian’s through education, advocacy, and cooperative efforts with other health care professionals and organizations.  We actively promote the profession and represent the interests of its membership with integrity.

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