I spent about an hour this morning shifting through my usual bewildering array of junk mail, e-mail spam and other random communications. I'm not looking for sympathy here: I know you deal with the same problem. But in those "other" cases it often seems, believe it or not, like the companies bombarding me with missives don't know much about me or my business.
They send a bunch of irrelevant stuff that just has no meaning to me. Then, I have to sort through it all and throw it away. All I remember about the sender is that they are irritating. As you're sorting through your own pile of "junk", do you sometimes find yourself asking "don't they know?." For example, in response to the invitation for yet another credit card, does the thought "don't they know I have enough credit cards" pop into your head? Or for the advertisement from a local pizza company, do you think "don't they know we always eat [enter brand name here] pizza?" One of my favorites is the voice-over guy who keeps sending me all of his best marketing materials (CDs, radio spots, flyers, etc.
). I have absolutely no need of a voice-over specialist, and I can't imagine any situation in which I would (unless I decide, for some reason, to start a running narration of my life). My first thought? "Doesn't he know this is completely irrelevant to me?" The truth is, they don't know. But that doesn't make it any less irritating.
In too many cases, the communications advocates send to their elected officials elicit the "don't they know" response. Now wait a minute, don't get all huffy. I will grant you there's a difference between constituent communications and junk mail.
Part of an elected official's job is to receive, listen to and weigh the opinions of his or her constituents. It's an essential component of representative democracy. But there's an enormous difference between messages that are weighed, literally ("hmm, that seems about 2 lbs of form letters"), and messages that are heard and acted upon. To ensure that your messages fall into the latter category, try to avoid the "don't they knows.
" Following are some of the most common: "Don't they know they're not in our district?": Hands down, this is the number one "don't they know" out there. It's practically the first thing interns are taught when they walk through the door. All communications must demonstrate some relevance to the district or state of the elected official being contacted. Otherwise, they will likely be thrown away. Take the example of someone who called one of the Oregon offices I worked in during the debate over impeachment of President Clinton.
He had strong views, but frankly I don't remember what they were because when I asked him where he was from he said "Pennsylvania." As I was working for an Oregon member I had absolutely no interest at all in what he had to say. I asked why on earth he called us and he said "I'm so mad I'm calling everyone." OK, so, with 535 calls to make at probably 2 minutes per call, that's over 17 hours of his life he'll never get back. If he really wanted to be effective he could have used that 17 hours far more productively. Didn't he know? "Don't they know this request isn't relevant?" My husband's last name is "Silva" (yes, we're one of those modern couples with different last names).
"Silva" is Portuguese, but some business interests (cell phone companies, I'm talking about you) think it is of Hispanic origin, so they send us direct mail pieces written in spanish. Unfortunately, neither of us speak a word of spanish. While this could be seen as an opportunity for us to brush up on our language skills, it's not terrible effective because it's not terribly relevant. That's the same response many communications to Congressional offices elicit from the staff. For my literal readers out there, I'm not saying you can't write in spanish (Congressional offices do have access to translators). I'm saying that many missives to offices are irrelevant for one reason or another -- they aren't district-related, they're about legislation at another level of government, or they're about circumstances over which the elected official has no control.
For example, we once received a letter complaining about all the rain in the Pacific Northwest. Hey, if you don't like rain, don't live in the Northwest! "Don't they know we already took a position on this?" It makes me sad when advocates toil over impassioned pleas for cause X, Y or Z only to find that the elected official they're writing to already supports the bill. On the one hand, it's great to know they have a supporter. On the other, that time could have been spent in some other effort for the cause, such as setting up a meeting in the district or putting together a statement for the elected official to submit for the record. Before communicating with your elected officials, check to see if they've taken a position on the issue you're writing about.
The new Open Congress website at www.opencongress.org is a great place to check this out. Whatever you do, don't make the guru sad. "Don't they know that's impossible (or unreasonable)?" After over 10 years, I still remember the constituents who came in to talk with us about their business. They were moving their carry-out restaurant to a new location and were concerned because the new location, unlike the old location, did not have the advantage of having a Post Office next door.
Seems that the Post Office generates a lot of foot traffic. So they asked us to arrange to move the Post Office so that it would be near their new location. And they were really irritated when we said "no" (at first, in fact, I thought they were kidding and laughed -- oops.
) I know it's hard when you're impassioned about something, but do consider whether what you're asking for is really reasonable. Is it reasonable to expect your one member of Congress to singlehandedly end the war in Iraq? Or balance the budget? Or fix the tax code? Or solve global warming? Probably not (but you can certainly ask them to taks support specific legislation toward those goals). "Don't they know we receive hundreds of millions of communications a year?" While each individual office doesn't receive that many communications, they do receive tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands (or for some Senate offices, millions) of letters, e-mails, phone calls and visits from constituents every year. So no, the elected official does not read all his or her own mail. Nor is he or she able to meet with everyone who wants to meet.
And yes, sometimes letters from constituents do get lost. And, gasp, sometimes offices use form letters. Think about it -- if we assume every office receives around 100,000 communications per year, and if each office spent about 5 minutes on each communication, that would equal over 8,000 hours, or almost one year of time working 24-7. The point here is that you shouldn't be upset if you don't get an hour of quality time every time you contact the office.
Otherwise, you might get this "don't you know" response. Use these tips to avoid the "don't they knows" and you'll find your advocacy effectiveness skyrocketing!.
Find more effective advocacy tips and techniques at http://www.advocacyguru.com