How to communicate and build a relationship with your legislators
While a legislator may be an expert on one or two issues, it is impossible for every lawmaker to master every issue likely to come before Congress. Elected officials rely on staff, outside expertise and constituent input to effectively represent the people of their district or state. An ongoing dialogue with your elected officials is the best way to ensure they understand how their decisions will impact their constituents back home. No one can better explain the complexities of health care delivery and the impact policy changes would have on your organization’s ability to continue delivering care than people like you on the front line. It is important to build a relationship with your legislators not just contact them when legislation is pending. Offer your expertise and counsel so they seek your input when an issue arises. This guide provides tips on how to cultivate a relationship with your legislators and their staff, as well as tips for communicating more effectively and navigating the complexities of Congress.
An important note: Under federal tax law, 501(c)(3) organizations, like hospitals, can, within permissible limits, engage in lobbying about issues, including communicating with any legislator or legislative staff member, where the principal purpose is to influence legislation. However, there is an absolute prohibition on 501(c)(3) organizations participating or intervening in any political campaign on behalf of or in opposition to candidates for public office.
If you have questions about what is or is not permissible, please consult with your lawyers.
How to introduce yourself to your legislators
Introduce yourself to your legislators and the key members of their staff by scheduling a personal visit to the legislator’s district or the Washington, DC office. When you contact the office of a representative or senator to request a meeting, ask to speak to the scheduler. Explain who you are, the organization you represent and the purpose of your meeting. Consider asking to schedule meetings with pertinent staff such as the legislative assistant tasked with tracking health care issues or the chief of staff.
Scheduling the meeting
- Be flexible. Remember, legislators are juggling priorities and have busy travel schedules. Many travel frequently between their home office and Washington and may be more available to meet with you in their district. Others travel infrequently due to distance or committee responsibilities and may have limited availability to meet outside of designated district work periods.
- Explain the purpose of the meeting and how long it will take. If you need 20 minutes, ask for 20 minutes. Do not ask for more time than you need.
- Confirm the meeting with the scheduler or other relevant staff member. This reduces scheduling errors and helps make you more visible.
- Arrive early and bring a fact sheet about your organization – its size, history and role in your community. Bring extra copies and your business cards. Ask for staff’s business cards and how they prefer to be contacted.
- Begin by introducing yourself and your organization. Share your organization’s story. Talk about the services you offer, your employees, your work within the community and the economic impact you have on the community. Invite your legislator and the staff to tour your organization to learn more about the work you do and meet the nurses who care for their community.
- Send a follow-up email thanking the legislator and/or staff for meeting with you and express your desire to work together. Repeat your invitation to tour your hospital.
- Thank the scheduler who arranged the visit on your behalf.
Tips for giving a tour of your hospital
A tour familiarizes your legislator and/or staff with what you do and the challenges you face. The purpose of the tour should be strictly informative. Hospitals and 501(c)(3) cannot employ resources to influence voter preferences or the outcome of an election. Please see the “Legal Do’s and Don’ts” at www.aha.org if you have questions about what exactly is or is not permissible, or consult with your lawyers. Be patient with the scheduling, it takes time to schedule a tour. Keep in mind:
- Prepare a factsheet about your organization. Include information about the services provided, number of nurses and other personnel, locations, services within the community, awards, information about key people and interesting facts. This gives your legislator and the staff a quick and easy look at your organization and the role it plays in your community.
- Arrange for a photographer if you want photos of the visit for your internal communications.
- Determine if press will be allowed into your facility. Check with the legislator’s office to see if they plan to notify the press of the visit. If you don’t want the press involved, tell your legislator that press is not allowed. If you agree to allow the press in, make sure your legislator’s office understands this tour is an opportunity to learn more about your organization and not a campaign opportunity. Assign a staffer to work with the press and determine in advance what parts of the visit are off-limits. Ensure all proper procedures are followed to maintain patient privacy.
- Notify your staff of the tour date and time. Ensure your employees are aware of the legislator’s visit, and the purpose of it, so you may extoll first-hand the great services your organization provides for your community, and clearly communicate the challenges faced in the pursuit of this work.
- Make a place for your tour guests to make phone calls, check email or relax before the tour begins. An uncluttered office or conference room will suffice. For more information on congressional gift and travel rules, see the AHA Legal Advisory at www.aha.org.
- Allow time for discussion. Sit down with your guests before or after the tour to discuss any burning issues and go over their questions.
- Send a follow up letter thanking the legislator for making the visit and reinforce your talking points. Send a separate follow-up note to the staffer who accompanied the legislator.
Legislators are eager to interact with their constituents during congressional recesses. Recesses generally occur the weeks before or after a major federal holiday and in the month of August. Check the latest congressional calendars. A standing invitation to tour your facility during August or other major congressional recesses would increase the likelihood of the legislator accepting the invitation.
Nurturing the relationship
It’s essential to maintain a dialogue when nurturing a strong relationship with your lawmaker, and to continue to do so even when there is no pending legislation. Once you have met your legislator and staff members, continue contacting them on a regular basis on both urgent issues and matters of policy. Legislators and their staff rely on input from constituents to inform their opinions on legislation and policy. You want them to consider you a valuable resource. Email is the preferred form of communication but ask your legislators and their staff how they prefer to communicate.
Tips for writing an effective email
- Personalize the message. Remind the legislator or staff member of your most recent meeting or interaction. Personalization may mean your message is given closer attention.
- Get to the point. Staffers deal with a large volume of email.
- Confine yourself to one or two issues. Explain your position as clearly and concisely. If the issue is complicated, attach additional material and your telephone number so the staff can call you if additional information is needed.
- Share your personal experience. Use real-life examples to illustrate your points.
Use social media. Nearly all members of Congress have Facebook and Twitter accounts. Follow your senators and representative to see what issues are most important to them and share your views with them. Conversations about what is happening in your community are happening online. Social media provide an opportunity to participate in the dialogue to make sure your voice is heard.
Tips for calling your legislators
- Call rather than email if the issue is urgent.
- Get to the point - explain who you are and why you are calling.
- Be Prepared. Have your facts straight and your talking points ready. You only have a few minutes to get your point across.
- Be ready to answer questions. Do not expect a one-sided conversation. Anticipate questions your legislator or the staff member could ask you and have answers. If you are asked a question to which you do not know the answer, say you don’t know but offer to follow up when you have an answer.
- Follow up with an email referencing your conversation. Reiterate your points and provide any additional information you’d promised.