After you figure out who the key players are and whom to talk to, you need to develop your message. This step takes research and discipline. Find out what issues your representative feels passionate about, then try to present your concern in a way that will play to those interests. These days, educating yourself on the issues is easy. Most members of Congress have Web sites that tell you what they're working on and how they've voted on different pieces of legislation.
"You can really get a sense of the key issues they're addressing now or in the near future," observes Karen Kerrigan, chair of the Small Business Survival committee, a non-partisan small-business advocacy group with a membership of 50,000.
Here are some other guidelines to follow when developing a message to get the attention of your congressperson:
- Know whether your issue is a statute change, which requires laws to be rewritten, or an appropriation issue, in which funding is necessary.
- Figure out why your representative should care about a single issue from a single constituent. Then set out to convince him or her. For example, any issue that will cost jobs in a member's district will probably stir some interest.
- Don't just complain. You need to clearly explain why the issue is important to you, other business owners and the district or state your congressperson represents.
- Do your homework and know the facts. That's where looking up what bills have been introduced on your issue counts. Speaking from experience, Vance says, "Some people come in and ask members to co-sponsor things they have already [co-sponsored] or actually introduced themselves. You automatically lose your credibility because you haven't done your homework."
Along these lines, know the current status of your issue. "Nothing hurts you more than firing off a letter on an issue that has already been resolved," says Dave McClure of the Association of Online Professionals. McClure, who has successfully lobbied for his association, cautions, "Pick your battles carefully, don't be emotional, and separate your personal and ideological battles from business ones."
- Never exaggerate, be untruthful or omit important facts when coming up with your core message. And remember, anecdotal examples from your district are always good; they get people's attention and give your congressional representatives some ammunition if they decide to go to bat for you.
- Be focused and specific. The hard part is honing all this down so you can deliver your message in less than five minutes if you get the opportunity to meet with your congressperson, or on one or two pages if you write to him or her. Just remember, legislators are busy and they get requests from people like you every day. Give them a long, drawn-out, tedious explanation of your cause, and their eyes will glaze over with thoughts of their 2004 campaign long before you're finished.
- Demand action. Know what solution you want, and convey that. Your issue has to be one where definitive action needs to be taken. "Don't just walk in and say, `I've got a problem; what will you do for me?' " says Richard Barnes, a longtime Washington, DC, attorney and lobbyist. "You have to know your issue well enough that you can articulate what needs to be done."
Congressional offices receive an enormous amount of constituent mail. Surprisingly, most of it is answered. On average, representatives of small states receive about 10,000 letters annually; those from large states such as California and New York can get as many as 250,000 letters a year. To get the right kind of attention, you need the right kind of message.