Honestly, I’m not here to share my political views. If you read between the lines on some of my posts, you can probably figure it out, but I’m really not interested in starting an argument. The point of this post is to help those of you who find yourself writing a letter to an elected official on behalf of your employer.
First–why would you need to do this?
- Appointment-making: Your company CEO or Government Relations representative might be interested in making an appointment to meet your representative or senator. This is better done by phone, so this entry will focus on the items below.
- Lobbying: It is entirely possible, if you work for a defense contractor (“Beltway Bandit” being the derogatory term, “Highway Helper” being a more polite version), you might find an occasion to ask a representative or senator for money. Specifically, your company might be lobbying for a set-aside, i.e., money specifically set aside to pay for a product/service that your company produces.
- Complaining: Your representative or senator is voting or doing something your company dislikes. You want them to stop.
- Thanking: Your representative or senator has done something that helped your company’s business.
You might not necessarily agree with your employer or your elected official, but you can still use a few specific skills and tactics to help you through the process. So you’ve been asked to write a letter to someone in Congress (or Parliament, for those of you elsewhere in the English-speaking world). What tone do you use? How do you approach this work? My experience is with Americans and the American system of government and expectations. Your approach/tone could differ elsewhere. My apologies for my lack of knowledge overseas.
Keep Things Neat and Orderly
Realistically, a representative/senator will NOT be reading his/her own mail. That task will fall to the staff. Every staff member (“staffer”) has a specific way of sorting the mail, with personal correspondence from the member’s family or close associates likely coming first, followed by constituents, then junk mail. Constituent letters can move further up the list if they appear in a company-letterhead envelope, are addressed through a printer or neat handwriting, and do not include unnecessary commentary on the exterior (“Angry constituent letter enclosed” is probably a bad thing to write). And while an email might seem the more immediate way to contact someone in Washington, a plain old paper letter on company letterhead makes more of an impression than an email. Think of how much junk email you receive. Multiply that by a few hundred thousand, and you might have some idea of the volume Congress receives on a regular basis.
Start with Respect
This seems like a no-brainer, but even if your employer is unhappy with the way an elected official is behaving or voting, it would serve you well to write in a direct, respectful manner. No insults, innuendos, or echoing of allegations heard at the water cooler, in the media, or on the internet even if found to be true. Irritating someone–particularly someone in power–is a poor way to get them to read your letter. By respect, I don’t mean being obsequious, begging, or fawning. I do mean using proper titles, avoiding familiarity or (as previously noted) insult, and assuming that said elected official has an informed, educated vocabulary. You might not agree with that assumption or believe it; regardless, assume that in your writing anyway.
Get to the Point
Congressional staffers are busy people. They are not going to have the time or patience to read a ten-page polemic on all the perceived errors your elected official has made. Focus on one topic, and mention that topic in your opening sentence. As with any constructive feedback–if that’s what you’re providing–it’s good to follow the situation-impact-outcome format. That is, you state the problem, explain its impact to your company, and explain what you would prefer your elected official do to rectify the situation. This approach works for lobbying or complaint situations.
Concentrate on Topics That Interest Your Reader
Members of the U.S. Congress, whether they be in the House of Representatives or the Senate, have very specific interests in their jobs. They are interested in issues that affect their constituents (district/state), particularly jobs or public safety matters, which could, in turn, affect their ability to get re-elected. Also, do a little research: most members of Congress belong to one or more committees or subcommittees related to specific aspects of public policy. If your representative/senator is on the Armed Services, Foreign Relations, or other national security-related Committee, they are more likely to pay attention to issues or arguments that relate to that particular topic.
Be Realistic About Your Expectations
Understand the Constitutional or jurisdictional limitations of your representative or senator. There might not be much a member of Congress can do about a Supreme Court ruling or about a law passed by your state or local government. However, they do have some influence over which types of laws or budgets are passed on a particular topic, especially if they are on the committee that votes on the issue that concerns your company. That said, throwing in a comment like “I pay your salary” won’t sway an elected official much better than a state trooper who pulls you over for speeding. Another thing to consider is that your letter is unlikely to change your elected official’s point of view, especially if you are opposing an issue that is a core belief for them. Still, you can at least make your displeasure known.
Avoid Some Basic Errors
As I’ve noted in previous postings, there are some obvious things you should NOT do in any business letter: don’t be rude, don’t use profanity, don’t write in ALL CAPS, etc. But seriously, I can’t stress this enough: don’t make threats. A threat to a business will attract the attention of the local police. A threat to a congressperson or senator will get you a visit from the Department of Homeland Security or Secret Service. Or both. Seriously, don’t even hint at it.
It can take a while for mail to get to a congressional office, sometimes over a week, even when sending from an address within the 48 contiguous states, because congressional mail is scanned for bombs, anthrax, and other threatening items (see previous section). Also, even if your company’s letter is read right away, it can take a week or two for a staffer to get around to write back to you. Writing as a private citizen and under a corporate signature, I’ve usually received a response within three to four weeks. If it’s three weeks since you mailed said letter, it might not hurt to call the member’s office to see if they’ve received it. And, again, if you want a more immediate response or conversation, it might not hurt to call the member’s office and arrange an appointment. That’s a whole other set of protocol, so I recommend reading The Citizen’s Guide to Lobbying Congress.
It is a fact of life in the United States that the federal government is involved in more and more of our daily lives, personal and professional. Appealing to the government to redress grievances is included in the First Amendment, so businesses have this opportunity just as do individuals. The trick, as always, is to frame your argument in such a way as to more likely get the result you want.