Communicating With Congress: What the CMF’s Report Means for Grassroots Advocacy

Today at the Public Affairs Council’s National Grassroots Conference in Key West, Florida, the Congressional Management Foundation released the latest report from its “Communicating With Congress” project.  Brad Fitch, the Executive Director of CMF and a fellow contributor at K Street Café, will give attendees a run-down of the report’s most important findings at the conference’s keynote address.  (Disclaimer: My firm, Adfero Group, is a sponsor of the Communicating With Congress report.)

For nearly a decade, the Communicating with Congress project has worked to improve communications between the public and Members of Congress.  This post provides a roadmap for both advocacy organizations and Members on how to use the information from the project’s latest report.

Recommendations for Advocacy Organizations

There are five key points that advocacy organizations should take away from the CMF’s latest report as they plan their grassroots strategies.

#1: Educate Your Members

In a 2007 poll conducted by CMF, 44% of Americans responded that they had contacted a U.S. Senator or U.S. Representative within the previous five years.  That statistic is truly staggering.  Nearly half of Americans have actively participated in our democratic system during the past five years.  The Internet has opened a new and much broader conversation between constituents and elected representatives.

In general, Capitol Hill seems to agree that Internet-facilitated constituent involvement is a good thing.  In a separate CMF poll, Members and their staffers responded that grassroots advocacy has increased participation and accountability.  However, they also believe that the quality of constituent interactions has declined and that the public’s overall understanding of Congress has decreased.

Online advocacy tools have almost made it too easy to contact Congress.  To contact a Member, all citizens need to do is fill out their name and click a button.  Congress’s perception of an uninformed citizenry reflects a certain degree of complacency in the grassroots community.  Organizations have come to rely (sometimes exclusively) on this one-click access to Congress to implement their strategies.

Organizations and corporations need to take the time to educate their members and employees about how Congress and advocacy works.  For example, activists should understand the issues they are writing about.  They should also understand that a well-written, personalized letter is more likely to have an impact than a form letter.  Directing members to a click-and-send form may be easy and may produce fast results, but advocacy groups need to resist the temptation to stop there.

#2: Mobilize Key Activists

The CMF’s report also demonstrates that advocacy groups need to step up efforts to engage in high-touch grassroots campaigns.  To do so, organizations must make a renewed effort to identify, recruit, educate, and mobilize key activists.

In most districts, there are a handful of constituents who are willing to spend a great deal of time advocating on behalf of an issue — much more than the five minutes it takes to send a form email.  Advocacy groups need to recognize these activists and recruit them to participate in the high-touch, personalized type of campaign that tends to most effectively influence Congress.  Here again, educating key activists about the issues and about how Congress works is critical.  High-touch campaigns will be most effective when activists understand advocacy.

#3: Create a Tele-Town Hall Advocacy Strategy

One of the specific ways that advocacy groups can engage in high-touch campaigns is to develop a Tele Town Hall (TTH) advocacy strategy.   According to the CMF’s report, Congress’s use of TTH’s has exploded over the past few years.

Staffers report that the popularity of TTH’s is due to the impact they have on Members: hearing the emotion in a constituent’s voice as she talks about an issue can be more powerful than even the most eloquent email.  Members are fully engaged when they participate in TTH’s, replicating the feel of an in-person visit and town hall meetings.  TTH’s also offer certain advantages over these traditional in-person forms of engagement.  Up until last year’s healthcare debate, in-person town hall meetings tended to attract true activists.  In contrast, by contacting large number of constituents via telephone calls, TTH’s allow Members to get insight from everyday citizens.

TTH’s present a challenge for advocacy organizations, but there are still ways to leverage their growing relevance.  First, advocacy organizations should make an effort to know when Members are holding TTH’s.  Although they are not always well-publicized, many Members allow constituents to sign up to participate in advance.  Advocacy groups should also prepare members for how to participate effectively in a TTH by asking good questions in an appropriate way — again, education is key.

For those organizations with a large membership base (such as the AARP) or corporations with a large number of employees in a particular district or state (such as Wal-Mart in Arkansas), there is an opportunity to self-organize TTH’s that are exclusive to their own members. (Kudos to the AARP, which has already self-organized a number of TTH’s.)  In some cases, a format that utilizes video — such as on online broadcast via U-Stream — may be even more beneficial, creating a stronger connection between the Member and participants.  Taking the initiative to organize this type of an event will give members and employees a unique chance to directly communicate with Congress.

#4: Volume Still Matters

In the advocacy community, the message that has emerged in the past few years is that campaigns built around form emails are less effective than those built around personalized communications from constituents.  When grassroots professionals pick up CMF’s report, they will once again see that form emails are rated as being significantly less effective than other types of advocacy activities.

In some ways, this is obvious: a personalized email is far more likely to have an impact than a form email.  It connects an issue to an individual constituent, and provides stories for Members to use on the floor as they advocate for a particular bill or amendment.

Yet, the CMF’s rating only tells half the story: it focuses on quality and ignores quantity.  One form email may do little (especially when compared to a personalized email), but 10,000 form emails indicating for a bill obviously has a much greater effect on a Member than a single in-person advocating against the bill.

The “somewhat effective” rating is also more reflective of a junior staffer’s perspective than a Member’s.  Many lower-level staffers typically dislike high-volume email campaigns because they mean more work.  Members, on the other hand, respond to volume.  One Republican Senator reinforced this point when he told the CMF that “mail matters more than constituents think it does.” Hill offices catalogue all emails, even those they never respond to.  And when Hill offices produce mail reports, those reports typically don’t distinguish between form emails and personalized ones.

For a Member, seeing that 5,000 constituents have sent emails in support of an issue will have an impact.  When I worked on the Hill, the Member I worked for insisted on getting updates before every key vote about the number of constituents who had contacted the office both for and against the bill.

Advocacy groups that adopt a strict “no form email” approach may miss out on one of the most important ways of influencing Congress.  High-touch efforts are critical, but volume still matters.

#5: Plan Strategy Based on Goals and Stop Playing Games

Choosing between form email campaigns and high-touch efforts should depend on the nature of the organization’s legislative goal.  For groups seeking to have a long-term impact — perhaps by jump-starting a Congressional investigation or a new piece of legislation — a high-touch approach is best.  If the chosen tactic is an individualized email campaign, organizations need to educate members about both the issue they are writing about and how to draft an effective letter in their own words.  Emails that explain why the author cares about an issue and why other constituents in their District share their concerns are more likely to have an impact and provide Members with content for floor speeches.

For those groups whose goal is to influence pending vote on a specific piece of legislation at the last minute, the best approach is a form email campaign.  Volume matters (see above), and Hill offices can process form emails more quickly to give Members the percentages of constituents in favor of and against the bill. Since personalized letters take more time to be entered into a Member’s mail system than form letters, I would make the case that organizations should encourage advocates to send form emails in the final days leading up to the vote to ensure they are counted.

What is not effective, regardless of an organization’s short- or long-term goals, is game-playing.  To avoid the “form email” label, some groups have invented alternatives.  Rather than using a single letter, groups ask constituents to fill in the blanks to “personalize” an email, or to pick and choose from an assortment of pre-written paragraphs to form the body of a letter.

Hill offices are not fooled by these deceptive efforts.  Earlier this year, at a Get PR Smart event about strategies for reaching Congress, panelists Eric Jones (from Sen. Tom Harkin’s office) and Armstrong Robinson (from Rep. Geoff Davis’s office) expressed resentment toward these types of efforts.  Most Hill staffers understand that these “alternatives” are just another form of game-playing.  By trying to manufacture personalized stories, these tactics only make life more difficult for staffers who have to wade through convoluted emails only to discover that the email doesn’t say anything personal at all.  Advocacy groups should stop trying to game the system.

Recommendations for Congress

Although advocacy groups have a lot of work to do, the CMF reports also makes it clear that Congress still has its own shortcomings when it comes to constituent communications.

#1: Ignore Constituent Email at Your Own Peril

The volume of emails that Congressional offices receive on a daily basis would make it understandable for Members to take short-cuts to avoid having to respond to each one individually.  Yet the CMF’s report shows that if Congress ignores constituent emails, they do so at their own peril.

Several years ago, my colleague Chris Battle, himself a former chief of staff on the Hill, wrote an opinion piece in Roll Call in which he encouraged Congress to catch up with the times.  At that time, some Congressional offices were trying to decrease their workloads by actively discouraging constituents from using email.  Chris advocated for Congress to adapt to emerging technologies and find ways to facilitate, rather than dissuade, constituent email.

Thankfully, the CMF’s report indicates that most Hill offices recognize that the high volumes of email they receive represent an opportunity.  Junior staffers are understandably still discouraged by the amount of work that constituent email entails; after all, they are the ones responsible for recording each incoming email and ensuring it is responded to appropriately.   However, the Members themselves, as well as chiefs of staff, appreciate that email campaigns represent an opportunity to build a database of constituents and to begin a conversation with the public.

#2:  Update Technology & Operational Procedures

CMF’s report also demonstrates that Congress still needs to update the tools they use to manage their constituent communications.  (Disclosure: I am an owner of Fireside21, a company that provides software solutions to Member offices.)  Increasingly, technology is moving in a direction that will allow Hill offices to track all forms of communication in a single database, allowing Hill offices to view an individual constituent’s entire history of communications.  Not only can technology streamline the work for Hill staffers, it can also result in improved engagement between Members and constituents.

Recommendations for Congress and Advocacy Organizations

Finally, both Congress and advocacy groups could benefit from working towards two goals that will lead to a more effective and engaged relationship between constituents and Members.

#1: Write Emails Like Emails

Although both advocacy groups and Hill officers are using email as their primary means of communication, both sides could use a lesson in email etiquette.  The letters that advocacy groups draft often sound formulaic, more like a press release than an email.  Similarly, the email responses Members send read as if they are written by first-year attorneys.

The format is email – but neither side is sending anything that sounds like a real email.  Both sides would benefit from using more informal language and treating email exchanges as a real-life conversation, not as paper correspondence.

#2: Streamline Communications between Citizens and Congress

Moving forward, two goals for communicating with Congress stand out.  Advocacy groups want to legitimize email campaigns as an accepted grassroots strategy that is taken seriously on Capitol Hill.  Congress, in turn, wants to relieve the stress that comes with handling large volumes of inbound emails.

Despite the apparent divergence between these two goals, streamlining the constituent-Member conversation could potentially solve both problems.  Another one of the CMF’s projects, a Partnership for a More Perfect Union, is dedicated to developing a set of standards for software companies that send letters to the Hill.  These standards would require emails to contain certain data points that make it clear what organization is behind the email and what specific campaign the email is associated with.

Adopting some version of these standards would solve both problems.  For Congress, it relieves some of the angst that Hill staffers face by making mail much easier to sort and respond to.  For advocacy organizations that choose to follow the standards, it would give a higher degree of credibility to email campaigns by increasing transparency and making Congress more receptive to high-volume campaigns.

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  • Neal Fuller

    Beautifully said Jeff.

    I would add that while some modes of member communication may indeed be “better” than others, one still has to ask, “better for what?” Goals may differ for different organizations and different issue campaigns.

    For example, a goal of an advocacy campaign could be to enhance the reputation on the Hill of an association or professional society. Simple form communications provide an opportunity for a citizen supporter to show who she “likes” (to borrow a metaphor). This citizen may not feel comfortable penning a personal dissertation on some neglected corner of the US Code. But she might feel very comfortable lending her support to a position taken by an organization that she trusts.

    At the very least, thousands of form messages sent supporting an organization’s position should enhance the standing of that organization with congressional members simply because such an organization has earned the trust of so many citizen supporters. And it should be remembered that this same organization will likely be contacting these same citizens at election time “educating” them about the candidates positions and voting records.

    Congressional offices will not want to ignore what Tocqueville recognized as one of the distinguishing features of our political culture: the propensity of Americans to form associations that represent their interests. Rather than seeing form communications as a scourge, Hill offices should see them as a window into the relationships of their constiuents and the organizations whose lead they follow.