By Caren Howard, MHA Advocacy Manager
When it comes to advocating for an important issue like mental health, phone calls, faxes, emails and letters are all important - but face-to-face meetings on Capitol Hill or at your local district offices helps put a face to what can sometimes be a complicated issue.
Here are some tips to make your next visit to your elected official’s office a productive one:
- Make an appointment. Schedule the visit in advance; don’t just show up. A broad-based delegation of constituents (five is ideal) increases the likelihood of getting a meeting with the legislator rather than a staff member. Communicate with the office’s scheduler on your meeting request (who, where, when and why) and remember to follow up. Use your company or organization’s letterhead when faxing the request and mention that you will share pictures of your legislator meeting with your organization’s supporters via your group’s website, newsletter, and social media platforms. If your lobby visit is in Washington, D.C., you should ask to meet with at least the Legislative Assistant.
- Prepare for the visit. Information on your legislator’s co-sponsorship of bills and previous votes is available online. You can also find valuable personal information about your legislator on his or her home page. Have a face-to-face pre-meeting with your delegation to determine who will cover which points and who is going to “chair” the meeting to keep it on topic.
- Be punctual and positive. Be on time, and thank the staff person for his or her time. Even if you disagree on some issues, compliment the member for a vote or action you appreciated. Building a rapport with staff is important in developing a long-term relationship.
- Focus the meeting. Briefly introduce the individuals of the group, the organizations you represent, and the topic you wish to discuss. It is important to talk about only one issue and to stay on this topic. Remember, you don’t have to be an expert on an issue; members meet with you because you elected them.
- Listen and gather information. Ask for your legislator’s view on an issue. Be patient and passionate; don’t react angrily if you don’t get the response you want. Stay calm and be polite always.
- Tell your story. Keep the story to a couple of sentences. Think about mental health services in Medicaid or as a part of the exchanges/commercial markets. Explain a time when you or someone you know personally benefitted from mental health or substance use disorder services. Don’t forget to end the story with an ask!
But what is an “ask”? Asks are concrete measurable actions that may be taken by a member to change or reinforce existing law.
Rather than something generic like “I want you to support mental health,” a more effective ask would be, “Please VOTE NO on legislation that would remove mental health/substance use disorder services from the required ‘essential health benefits’ package.”
- Follow up. Tell the staff person you will get back to him or her if you can’t provide information about an issue on the spot. If the staff person is unfamiliar with a bill or is unsure about the legislator’s position, ask for follow-up correspondence. Leave one or two pages of relevant material.
- Express your thanks. At the end of the meeting, thank the staff person or the member for his or her time. Send a thank you letter soon after your visit, repeating your “ask.” This letter helps build a relationship over time with a member or the staff person.
Meeting with your member of Congress, your state legislator or their staff and developing a personal relationship are the most effective ways to influence the legislator’s positions on an issue.
Putting a face to the issues makes your ask that much more meaningful.
Sometimes, one story can make all the difference.
Interested in visiting your members of Congress on Capitol Hill this summer? Join us for Hill Day!