Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Communicating with the Capitol: The Power of Constituency

We all want superpowers, right?  Personally, I would like to be able to teleport.  Or fly.  Basically, find some cool way of avoiding my walk home every night in the freezing cold.

What if I told you that you do have a superpower?  I’ll admit, it may not be quite as flashy as flying or teleporting or being invisible, but seriously, you do.  It’s the power of constituency.  Sounds cool, right?

Basically, Members of Congress live and breathe by their constituents.  As a constituent, you elected your two Senators and your Representative because you thought they would do a good job representing your interests.  If they don’t end up meeting your expectations, you, as a constituent, can help vote them out.  That’s pretty powerful.

And as a result, Members of Congress really do care about what you, as a constituent, think!  They want to know your opinion on issues, how issues directly affect you, and what policies you’d like them to focus on.  That way, they can work to best serve your interests and thereby win over your vote again when it comes time for reelection.

On the other hand, many offices either have policies that they will only meet with constituents or that there must be some sort of tie to the district or state if a non-constituent is requesting a meeting.  This makes sense given the onslaught of meeting offices receive in a given week.  They have to prioritize their constituents.

So whenever you are communicating with the Congress, whether you’re trying to set up a face-to-face meeting or just corresponding with the legislative staff about an issue you care about, make sure you include your address, or at least your zip code.  If they can see right away that you are in their district or state, they are so much more likely to act on your issue.  Seriously, I hear this time and again from schedulers as we set up meeting after meeting on Capitol Hill.

So next time you have an opinion on an issue and you want to ask your Member of Congress to act, make sure you use your superpower.  Tell them explicitly that you’re a constituent.  Your superpower can help make sure your legislators hear what you have to say!

Wednesday, December 03, 2014

Let’s Get Social!

Some of you may have seen the slightly embarrassing yet surprisingly catchy train wreck that is “Let’s Get Social,” a viral video of a performance at the Social Media Marketing World conference in which a woman sings about the importance of getting “social with social media.” If you haven't seen it yet, you should and you can watch it here. With wonderful lyrics like “Here’s some photos from my life/My cat, my kids, some bacon” and “We’re looking for the secret/Of Facebook’s Holy Grail/We try to keep from paying/That leads to hashtag #fail,” it is in and of itself just that, a hashtag #fail.

However, amongst the terrible lyrics and awkward rap bridge they actually make some good points about the importance of social media. The message here is that you can’t just post to social media and expect results—you also have to interact with social media. Follow people who care about the same issues. Retweet them and like and share their Facebook posts. Find the hashtags that are popular for your issue area and use them in your own tweets. Turn yourself into a valuable resource that people are going to want to follow and then start a discourse with your followers to make them feel involved. If you build a trust with your followers, you will have a much greater impact in the world of social media.

The most important thing I get from this video is that it’s important to have fun with your social media. Yes the video is ridiculous, but look at how many views it has! Sometimes the social media world can feel like one big competition for attention, so you need to find a way to rise to the top. This video might go a little too far onto the ridiculous side of the spectrum, but if you can find a balance between professionalism and fun then you’ll enjoy a level of success that you haven’t reached before.

Now, everyone say it with me …

Let’s get social!!

Tuesday, December 02, 2014

Communicating with the Capitol: Know Who You're Talking To

Congressional staffers have told us repeatedly how much it drives them nuts when advocates come into meetings and ask them to support a bill their boss has already co-sponsored.  When this or something similar happens, they say they often tune out because the advocate seems uninformed and couldn’t even take the time to do some basic research.  If you want your meeting to be effective, you need to put in a little work ahead of time.  I know you’re busy, so I’m not saying you need to go read the books they’ve written or all their past speeches or anything, but there are a few things you should do before your meetings to make sure you are well-prepared.  Trust me, staffers remember the meetings they have with informed constituents.  Here are some quick tips.

  • Read the member’s bio:  This takes at most 10 minutes.  Understanding where they come from and how they got into politics can provide great opportunities for you to personally connect with the office.  Say, for instance, you are a small business owner and as you’re reading your Senator’s bio, you find out that she worked for a small business for years before running for the Senate.  That would be a great way to connect with the office early on.  The more connecting lines you can draw, the more likely you are to be remembered. 
  • Know their issues:  Now that you’ve read the bio, it’s time to dig a little deeper.  Nearly all Members of Congress have either an “Issues” or “Legislation” tab or something similar where you can find out their priorities.  I know you are going to find this shocking, but most Members of Congress come to the Hill because they are truly passionate about an issue or two and they really want to make a difference with that issue.  They’re not all greedy, corrupt, power hungry Frank Underwood clones (at least not when they first get to DC).  You may just not always agree with the issues they’re passionate about.  If you can find ways to frame your asks around key issues they care about, they are far more likely to follow through and act on your issue.  Get creative here.  For instance, say one of their priority issues is education but you’re advocating for legislation to help caregivers for people with long-term disabilities.  Maybe you could demonstrate how improving caregiving allows people with disabilities to attain higher levels of education.  That’s just an example, but if on the surface your issue seems unrelated to their priorities, think outside the box a little and I’ll bet you can come up with some connection. 
  •  Figure out which committees they’re on:  Determining the committees and subcommittees a Member serves on can give you insight into some other issues their office focuses on.  If they serve as a chair or a ranking member on a committee, they likely have staff dedicated solely to that committee’s work.  If they are on a committee under which your issue falls, the staff is likely to be better informed about your issue, which in turn will better help you make your case.  If they’re not on a committee that relates to your issue, that by no means makes a meeting pointless, but it’s good to figure that information out ahead of time so you’re not blindsided if they say something like they work on your issue all the time in their committee. 
  •  Check out bills and votes:  As I mentioned earlier, one of the complaints we hear most often is that a Member of Congress will have already co-sponsored the bill you are asking them to co-sponsor.  If you are advocating for a specific piece of legislation, make sure you know who the co-sponsors are, what exactly the bill does, and why you support it. provides useful brief bill summaries so you don’t have to go in and read the full text of the legislation.  If your Member of Congress has co-sponsored your bill, you can still go in and thank him or her.  This will again show the office that you are well-informed and will also demonstrate that you care about and are following the actions the Member is taking on your issue.

Doing your research ahead of time doesn’t have to take days, but it can mean the difference between seeing progress on your issue and having a staffer walk out of a meeting with you and never think about your issue again.  Show the Member or their staff why you care about your issue, but also show them why they should care too.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Thanksgiving: The Recipe for a Perfect Congressional Meeting

It’s that time of year again.  Thanksgiving is an annual event where families come together, share stories, grow closer and stuff their face. Minus the stuffing their face part, there are a lot of parallels to be drawn between Thanksgiving and Advocacy Days. Advocacy Days are an annual event where advocates come together, share their stories on Capitol Hill, and build relationships with Members of Congress and their staff. Furthermore, the various components of Thanksgiving dinner can be used as a metaphor for the perfect congressional meeting (yes, these are the things I think about). Here’s a breakdown of how you can use everyone’s favorite holiday meal as a guideline for your upcoming Advocacy Day:

1.       The turkey is the “ask”. It wouldn’t be Thanksgiving if we didn’t start with the turkey (or tofurky for you vegetarians out there). The turkey is the highlight of the dinner, the centerpiece that makes it Thanksgiving. If you take the turkey out of the equation, the rest of the dinner is almost pointless. This is why the turkey is just like the “ask” in your congressional meeting. You can have the most productive, friendly, informative meeting, but if you leave that office without asking your Member of Congress to do something specific then you have just wasted your time. Legislators and their staff have a lot on their plate, including taking time to meet with constituents like you, so unless you ask them to do something tactile they will likely shake your hand as you leave and then forget all about you.
2.       The stuffing is your story. The turkey might be the most important part of the meal, but the stuffing is always the fan favorite. At least in my household, the stuffing is the most enjoyed part of the meal and is usually what everyone leaves the table still talking about. That’s why the stuffing is like your personal story. Members of Congress and their staff want to meet with their constituents for one reason—they want to hear your personal story and how you are affected by what they do as a legislator. Leaving out your personal story would be like leaving out the stuffing in Thanksgiving dinner—the staffer will feel underwhelmed and unfulfilled.
3.       The green beans are your hard facts. Green beans certainly aren’t as popular as stuffing when it comes to Thanksgiving dinner. That said, they are a necessary supplement that help to complete the meal. This is why green beans are like the hard facts of your congressional meeting. Not everyone loves eating their veggies, and not every staffer loves dealing with figures and percentages. Still, they need to be included in your meeting as a way of backing up whatever it is you are asking for. Using numbers effectively to show how a certain policy will affect you, your business or a large number of people in their district will help you to drive home the “ask.”
4.       The pumpkin pie is your follow up. Hours have passed, the football game is on, you’ve taken a little tryptophan nap, and you’re almost fully digested. By now you’ve almost forgotten that you ate this huge, delicious dinner—but wait! Suddenly it’s time for pumpkin pie, a reminder that Thanksgiving isn’t over yet. Pumpkin pie is like the follow up in a congressional meeting—you want to make sure the meeting isn’t forgotten without any action taken. It’s important to continue to build your relationship with a congressional office throughout the year, and you can start by following up a day or two after your meeting with a “thank you.” In the weeks ahead, make sure to send over any information you didn’t have in the meeting that you said you would get back to them on and remind them of your “ask.” This is a good foundation for maintaining contact throughout the year and developing that relationship further. Congressional staff always appreciate follow up, and I always appreciate pumpkin pie.

Have a happy and safe Thanksgiving/Advocacy Day preparation meal.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Communicating with the Capitol: Make the Ask

There’s a wide variety of ways to communicate with Congress.  You can send letters and emails, make phone calls, post on social media, and set up in-person meetings both in DC and in the state or district.  With all the methods of communication now available to us, Congressional offices get bombarded with massive amounts of correspondence, and the reality is that some messages get lost in the shuffle.  But Members of Congress and their staff consistently tell us that communicating with constituents is their top priority, and when you consider that their constituents are the ones who decide if they remain in office, this seems to make a lot of sense.

How can you be heard in this communication chaos?  We’ve heard a lot from Congressional staff about their preferred methods of communication and what bothers them, and we figured it would be useful to share some of this information with you!  Check back weekly for new tips and tricks on how to get your message heard in the hubbub.

Today’s Tip:  Make the Ask.  We’ve heard time and again from constituents who have met with their representatives’ offices on the Hill that they’re frustrated when nothing actually changes or gets done after their meetings.  They tell us their meetings went so well, the staff was nice and really interested to hear what they had to say, but then nothing tangible materializes.  And then we ask, “Well what did you ask them for?”  The response to that question usually leaves people confused.  They say something like, “We told them about our awesome programs and how many people we serve and the need we fill in our community,” and our response is inevitably, “Well, that’s not a question.”

If you don’t ask for something specific—in the form of a question—the staff is going to smile and nod and tell you how cool your work sounds and then go back to their desk and work on issues for all the other people they met with that day that did ask them for something specific and tangible.  The simple fact is, if you don’t ask, you can’t expect to get anything.  So next time you’re going to the Hill, make sure you prepare one ask, be it for bill co-sponsorship, attendance at an event back in the state or district, or to introduce legislation.  Just make sure it’s in the form of a question (seriously, I can’t stress this enough!).

Friday, November 21, 2014

Why the Legislative Process is Like Thanksgiving Dinner

The legislative process has been compared to the process of making sausage: while some may find the final product palatable, you don't really want to see how it's made. However, I've recently come to a profound and somewhat startling realization. Forget Sausage. Think Thanksgiving Dinner.

What do I mean? Well, every year we host Thanksgiving dinner for 10 to 15 friends. When we started planning the menu this year, we came to the stark realization that each of our guests has a very different and very steadfast idea of what the Thanksgiving feast must include. The Chardonnay faction went head-to-head with the Pinot Noir bloc. The green bean casserole enthusiasts simply could not come to terms with those preferring green bean almondine. And I sincerely thought that the mashed potato and gravy vs. sweet potato casserole controversy would erupt into a fist fight.

So did we select between these conflicting and equally worthy menu items? Did we make the "hard choices"? No. Instead, we had two kinds of potatoes, two kinds of green beans - even two kinds of turkey (regular and "tofurkey" for the vegetarians, including myself). And the varieties of wine available became too numerous to count. So when you wonder how Congress comes up with these bills that have 18 million unrelated items, just take a good look at your own holiday traditions. Here are a few tips to (hopefully) help you think of all this in a different way:

·         Understand where the other person is coming from: Is your Aunt Millicent really insisting on her beloved "Brussel Sprout Surprise" because she's a horrible person? Will explaining to her over and over again that no one else likes Brussel Sprouts really convince her to forgo her long-time favorite? Not likely. Remember that members of Congress are representing the same diverse and, umm, interesting perspectives when it comes to policy matters.

·         Fight for your form of potatoes: Speak up! If you just have to have sweet potato casserole at Thanksgiving, say so - and do everything you can to make that happen. Don't just sit there at the table all squinchy-faced thinking about how your meal is ruined because it doesn't include what you want. You may not be successful in lobbying for your potatoes, but you'll feel better if you ask. And who knows? You might not get your potatoes this year, but maybe you can have something to say about the style of cranberry sauce. Or perhaps a promise (be sure to get it in writing) of your form of potatoes for next year.

·         Develop alliances: My step-sister and I always join forces in lobbying for the sweet potato casserole, and we've developed strong alliances with other factions. As a result, support for our preference has remained rock solid, despite repeated efforts to have it removed from the menu. Think strategically and politically about how you form these alliances. Who has the ear of the "menu-planners" in Congress? How can you join forces with them to get your menu item on the table?

·         And finally, be prepared to give thanks, regardless. Many of us, thankfully, have enough resources (and space for leftovers) to please the majority of our Thanksgiving guests. That's a pretty big thing to be thankful for at a time when millions of people around the world go hungry. In the policy arena, remember that the U.S. Congress is dealing with somewhat more finite resources. Actual choices must be made and sometimes the things we like lose out, especially when new menu items - like rebuilding from a hurricane - start filling up most of the plate.

So, take a deep breath, think of the things you are thankful for, raise your glass of Chardonnay, or Pinot Noir, or whatever you want, and vow to continue the fight for your potatoes another day!

 ***This article was written by Stephanie Vance, The Advocacy Guru. Follow her on Twitter

Monday, November 17, 2014

Episode 34 - Campaign Volunteering

Host Craig Price calls the Advocacy Hotline to talk to the guru, Stephanie Vance, about ways to volunteer for political campaigns.

This week’s question: How to get involved in a campaign and what exactly do campaign volunteers do?


If you have questions about politics, advocacy or influence, be sure to email Also visit Stephanie's website to learn more about how you can be a more effective advocate or how you build long-term relationships with legislators and their staffs.

Check out this episode!

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Lame Duck 2014: Updates and Advocacy

Congress came back into session yesterday for the first time since the elections on November 4th.  The period between now and when the 114th Congress is sworn in in January is known as the lame duck session, and it is the last chance outgoing Members of Congress have to push through legislation they’d like to see discussed.  This lame duck session is of particular note because it is that last time Democrats will be in the majority in the Senate for at least the next two years.  On November 4th, Republicans picked up enough seats to gain control of the Senate, giving them the majority in both houses of Congress starting next year.

Issues:  While lame duck sessions aren’t generally characterized by a great deal of action, there are a few things advocates should consider paying attention to, the first of which being a spending bill for the government.  The current Continuing Resolution that funds the government expires on December 11th, so Congress will have to come up with a new spending bill—probably either another short-term continuing resolution or an omnibus spending bill—before that date to avoid another government shutdown.  Though a government shutdown this December is unlikely, the budget negotiations will be heated, and they are important because they will determine the levels of funding for federal programs as we move into the new year.

Some other issues Congress is likely to address during the lame duck include foreign policy issues like ISIS and Ebola, nominations like that of Attorney General, Immigration reform, and tax extenders.  It also seems possible that debate over the Keystone XL pipeline may come up.

Congressional Leadership:  Party leadership elections took place today with no real surprises.  Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY) will be leading Senate Republicans as Majority Leader, while Sen. Harry Reid (D-NV) will be leading Senate Democrats as Minority Leader.  In the House, Rep. John Boehner (R-OH-8) has been reelected Speaker of the House, and Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-CA-12) will continue in her role as Minority Leader for the Democratic Party.

Advocacy during the lame duck:  The lame duck is a great time to continue to advocate.  While Congress may not have the time or political will to address the particular issues you care about during this session, you can still let your representatives know what’s important to you and what you’d like to see them work on next year by making phone calls, sending emails, and responding to action alerts.  If nothing else, you likely have a stake in the outcome of the government spending bill, so make sure you get your opinions heard on the Hill over the next few weeks!

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Fighting for Your Beliefs

At 11am today, members of each branch of our military gathered in Arlington National Cemetery at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier to pay tribute those who have died in service to our country.  Today, Veterans Day, commemorates the peace that ended World War I, but in the United States, it has come to reflect a time to honor all veterans of all wars our country has fought.

Our soldiers serve on the front lines in battle.  They fight against those who threaten us and they sacrifice a great deal to do so.  They fight to protect our way of life, our freedom, our democratic process.  While our soldiers all have differing opinions about our country’s leaders and their ideas, they share a common belief that our nation and its democratic process is worth protecting.  And yet those of us who are not on the front lines of combat can sometimes take our way of life for granted.  We grow frustrated with our government when they don’t make decisions we agree with.  We grow apathetic and don’t take the time to vote in elections because we are accustomed to the democratic process and don’t anticipate it changing anytime soon.  And there are certainly reasons for disillusionment in our government.  Stories of corruption and other scandals only make us more wary of those in power.

And yet our democracy isn’t something we should become apathetic towards or take for granted.  All across the world, people live under repressive regimes where they truly have no influence over the decision-makers who control their lives, and they would give a great deal to have the right to vote and voice their opinions.  Our men and women in uniform fight to make sure we keep these rights of expression and maintain the power to influence, at least in some small way, how our government is run.  You won’t always be on the winning side, and decision-makers will continue to make decisions you don’t agree with.  But if you don’t actively participate, actively look for ways to make your voice heard, you give up your right to complain about the way our country is being run.

So today, on Veterans Day, I challenge you to think about the issue or issues you truly care about and find some ways, small or large, to fight for them.  Plan to call you Members of Congress and tell them what you think about a national issue.  Write a letter to your state senator about a local issue that directly affects you.  Set up meetings with your representatives either in your state or in Washington, DC.  Things like this may seem small, but if more people participate in our legislative process in small ways, our government will, by its nature, be more responsive.  While our small fights can in no way compare to our troops’ willingness to sacrifice everything, including their lives, in service to their country, they can be just as important.  And advocating—fighting for what we believe in—is in itself a way to honor and remember the sacrifice and service of those who have faced battle and fought because they believed in our country, in our democracy, and in the power of an individuals to have a say in their government.

Friday, November 07, 2014

Capitol Hill Days and the New Congress—Time to Get Prepared!

The endless campaigning, the repetitive political ads, the persistent news coverage, the crazy whirlwind that is election night and then, just like that, it’s all over. The 114th Congress will convene in January, and when your advocates come to DC for your 2015 Capitol Hill Day some of them will have brand new Members of Congress to start building relationships with. Be sure to focus some of your attention on these new legislators as you develop strategies and outline the logistics for next year’s event. Here are some of the considerations you should keep in mind:
  • Keep your advocates informed about congressional districts that will have a new incumbent come January. Guide them to the resources that will help them research their newly elected officials, such as to look at campaign contributions. Show them how to look up a legislator’s record if they were once a Governor or member of the State Legislature. If you have any advocates who have good relationships with a House member turned Senator, ask them to reach out to their connections to congratulate them.
  • Incorporate relevant information about the new Congress into your advocate training. Whether you’re doing a pre-event webinar or phone call or an in-person training the day before your hill day, spend some time focusing on how your advocates can get to know their new legislators and what a great opportunity this is to indoctrinate them with your issues. 
  • Early on, some new Members of Congress won’t have an office yet and will have a temporary space in the basement of their building, so if you have an early hill day make sure you are aware of these location changes. Some returning Members will also have room changes as some of the legislators who have been around for a while and have started to develop some seniority will eventually “upgrade” to a better office. Similarly, while new Members usually take on the phone number of the old Member, you might need to call the congressional switch board to connect with some of these offices where the phone number might change. You might consider subscribing to a service like KnowWho which keeps track of these changes.
If you’re looking for some assistance from a group that understands the ins and outs of coordinating a hill day in a new Congress, visit us at