Some Basic Guidelines for Advocates
- Believe in what you are advocating. Your own conviction and passion on the issue is of prime importance in convincing others.
- Know your audience. Whether you seek to convince one person or an entire community, knowing your audience enhances your chances of communication with them instead just talking at them.
- Know your opposition. Be able to address the objectionable part(s) of the opposition stance directly and effectively, using verifiable examples and statistics.
- Make full use of the media.
- Meet and get to know editors and reporters.
- Be aware of deadlines when scheduling news conferences, sending releases, or delivering news materials. Photos/slides enhance press or video presentations generally.
- Seek the advice of these professionals when questions arise about what you hope to accomplish in the media.
- Be quick to praise media efforts/editorials that are helpful to your cause.
- Respond in a polite and timely fashion when news coverage/editorials are to be challenged or expanded upon.
- Be newsworthy.
- Make use of other community systems. Do some brainstorming with fellow advocates about potentially useful community systems (PTA, churches, labor unions, neighborhood news, store windows, utility bills, etc.). Many of these "systems" are open to communicating useful information.
- Make full use of the political process. Initiate/support/oppose legislation as necessary. Lobby in person, by mail, e-mail or phone. Provide good information and good testimony.
Keys to Establishing a Relationship with Your Legislator
- Know who your legislator is before making initial contact on an issue.
- Find out what legislative committees your legislator serves on.
- A legislator's legislative aide or administrative aide is your entry point in conveying a message to the legislator. Learn the staff's names and always be respectful.
- When speaking to the legislator or staff member, quickly identify yourself, your affiliation with NAMI, the issue you would like to discuss and the fact that you are from the legislator's district.
- Ask when the legislator will be back in the district for the purpose of scheduling a visit.
- Put the legislator at ease by convincing him/her that you are there to serve as an educational resource. Act like a partner, not an adversary.
- Don't be offended if you leave a message for the legislator or aide and it is not immediately returned. Like you, legislators are very busy and will return calls as soon as possible. If you do not receive a timely response, call the legislator's office again and remind the staff that you are trying to make contact.
- Put broad policy issues in a local perspective. Legislators who know how issues will impact local voters tend to grasp ideas more easily and are generally more receptive.
- Invite your legislator to your affiliate's meeting. Seeing how you interact in your affiliate with NAMI members is an important way to establish your credibility as a resource.
Tips for Dealing with Legislators
- One-on-one contact is ideal. The most effective method to get a legislator to listen is to set up a meeting with him or her. The meeting can be brief, and it does not always have to be formal. Lots of business gets accomplished in the lobbies of the statehouse.
- Know the staff. Often, an aide is an influential part of the decision-making process for legislators. Get to know the aides, and keep the aides informed. Treat them as the important influence they are.
- Get your message in front. If you can not meet with a legislator, try to penetrate his or her sphere of influence. Try getting your message to staff, colleagues, family members or influential contributors. Phone calls, letter campaigns, media relations, and e-mails are all methods of communicating your issue.
- Keep your message simple. The best way to communicate a message is to convey how the issue will impact the communities and families in the legislator's district. Remember "Keep It Simple Stupid." You are one of many individuals or groups with a cause to promote – you have to make your issue easy to understand and you have to clearly spell out the impact it is having on the legislator's constituents.
- Do your homework. It is important to research before talking to legislators. Review the legislator's history on similar issues. What are the legislator's passions? How did he/she get elected – on what positions? What groups support (or oppose) that legislation? Preparation helps avoid potential land mines. (i.e., If your target legislator won on a tax cut agenda, you may have problems selling a tax increase to support your program.)
- Become a known entity. A legislator is more likely to listen to someone he/she knows. Thus, you cannot rely on an annual meeting with a legislator to build a relationship. Consider methods of making yourself useful to legislators to build a relationship. Is there information you can provide, a contact or an opportunity? Do not be afraid to go more in-depth with a staffer – they are dedicated to specific issues, so the more facts, the better. Always ask yourself, "What can I do to help this legislator?" Attending committee hearings is another way to be seen. If nothing else, legislators will recognize your face in the crowd.
- Gang up. Identify others with the same issues as NAMI's and partner to create an increased presence.
- Politics is a long-term process. One of the fastest ways to turn legislators off to your ideas is by threatening retaliation when they disagree with you. Remember that politics is a long-term process. It is a marathon, not a sprint. You may disagree with them one day, but you might be in agreement on another subject in the future. Do not burn important future bridges!
- Look out for their best interests. When advocating an issue, the most important part is to really let the legislator know you are looking out for his or her best interest. Do not tell your issue only from your biased perspective. Share the pros and cons of the issue. You do not want to be responsible for putting the legislation in a bad situation. Warn them of the pitfalls. Tell them what the opponents are saying, but follow up with an explanation of why your side is right.
- Say, "Thank you. " A simple thank you goes a long way. A public one goes even farther.
- Go the extra mile. Contact as many elected officials as possible. Build a network, and then work the network. Let the elected official know the supporters of your issue, and encourage supporters to work the network.
- Legislators will listen to the leadership. Make sure you have your bases covered. Start with the party leaders and committee chairs first; the rest will sometimes follow in line. Sometimes the leadership can end up being your best ally.
- Keep relationships ongoing. You can not just go to the legislators when you need something. The relationship must be reciprocal. Show them that you are on their side, no matter what their position.
- Build credibility. Always tell legislators the truth, giving them a fair representation of your issues.
Making Your Legislator Friends into Heroes
All of us know and appreciate the importance of a legislator who not only votes for our issues, but also actively supports our efforts. Oftentimes, this person is the sponsor of our legislation or a member of a key appropriations committee. Sometimes these legislative friends align with our issue due to the effective lobbying and sometimes due to personal experience. For whatever reason, we all know how important these legislative friends are to us.
Unfortunately, even the most well meaning and dedicated legislator is forced to pick and choose among the issues he or she supports and select those worthy of additional time and attention. This may be due to the volume of legislation, the daily press of time or just the politics of the process. An example of the politics is what occurs during an appropriations bill debate when an individual legislator is forced to make difficult choices as to which of worthwhile projects should receive his or her stronger support.
It is in this context that strategies to increase the likelihood that legislators will champion your issue or cause are so important