‘The pen is mightier than the sword.” A phrase originally coined by Edward Bulwer-Lytton for his play Richelieu, 1839. As applicable today as it was the first time it was said.
And when it comes to advocacy, the power of the pen (or keystroke) is unmistakable. That’s because the tone of a letter, email, text or fax can build or damage a relationship with (and your ability to influence) lawmakers.
And it’s not just the tone, but the timing as well. That’s why advocates need to read, re-read, then read again any communications before sending them. I’m going to focus on these topics, but as a side note…proper grammar and punctuation are just as important!
So how do you know the reaction your communique may have? The best way is to “put yourself in the shoes” of the recipient by asking, “What would I think if I read this email (letter)?” Would your response be what you hoped for?
Even if there’s a hint (or as I like to call it a gut feeling) that the legislator may question or take offense, then spend time re-wording it before sending. It’s worth the small amount of time it will take to prevent damaging your relationship. Including diplomacy, respect, courtesy and appreciation in your letter, doesn’t mean you’re watering down your message. In fact saying it with these characteristics in mind will make it even more effective.
But when is the right time to communicate? It depends! And because I can’t cover every scenario, we’ll focus on two.
If you’re asking for a legislator’s support of your organization’s philosophy, mission or a current law (such as Home Rule)…THE TIME IS NOW! If your legislators are unfamiliar with your organization or city, an introductory letter (with an invitation to visit) is the perfect start.
If they accept your invitation, a follow-up thank you note and request asking for their on-going support or consideration of your mission, current law, is appropriate. But don’t wait until session starts to send it.
Right before session is the time to wish them well and offer your support and expertise about your city or organization if legislation is filed that will affect it. And if you’ve spent the time building a positive your relationship, they will readily accept that offer.
If you’re asking for a legislator’s support of your position on specific legislation, then the time is after it’s been filed. However, here’s a word of caution when doing this. Timing really is everything. When session is underway, legislation moves quickly and is often amended throughout the process. These amendments may change one or many parts of a bill.
So make sure you understand why your legislator is supporting or opposing an amendment before communicating. Even if they don’t like all of it, there may be more good than bad. Admonishing them for voting against your position because a small piece of the bill affects your city or organization won’t work. A phone call or email to their staff will help you become familiar with their position and avoid the unintended consequences of a poorly timed and/or worded email after the fact. Advice that’s echoed by Florida State Representative Bobby Olszewski (R-44)
“Being a former city commissioner, there is finality in your vote. It is not that way as a legislator. The cliché is that you’re involved in the process. And there’s no doubt it is a process. As a state representative, I have to be keenly aware of what we’re obviously doing in the House, what’s going on in the Senate and what the Governor’s office is thinking. Any one bill could be heard and vetted by 10 different stops between the House committees, Senate committees, House floor, Senate floor and the Governor’s veto pen.
So there are a lot of things that can happen in between as the process is concluded. There are times when you have to vote a certain way in committees to move something along, because you know there’s something else coming. It could be stopped somewhere or passed somewhere along the way. So my advice would be not to live or die on every committee stop like it’s the end of the world. Like a piece of artwork, it’s a work in progress. The legislative process is a marathon, not a sprint.”
So no matter how you choose to communicate, remember the “power of the pen”, and use it for good to continue building strong relationships with lawmakers.
Your Partner in Advocacy…Kathy