How to Fight for the Issues You Care About (Contribution from Alan Janesch)

The following post comes to us from Alan Janesch, writer and editor and the former director of the Penn State Grassroots Network, a legislative education and advocacy program sponsored until recently by the Penn State Alumni Association. Learn more about Alan’s experience, and how to connect, at the end of his article.


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How to Fight for the Issues You Care About

No matter who you are, or where you live, someday, somehow, you will want something from your government, and you will need to know how to interact with your elected officials to get what you want. Maybe you want a stop sign on your corner, because drivers are racing by and endangering kids in your neighborhood. Maybe there’s a bill moving through your state legislature that you want to support — or oppose – because it affects your business or your line of work. Maybe your child has diabetes, and you think the federal government should invest more in diabetes research.

No matter what the issue, if you want to change things, you have to know how to make things happen. My hope is that this guest blog will help you do that, by giving you 10 simple steps you can follow that will help you make a difference. But before I get into that list, here are a few principles for effective advocacy. (These are drawn largely from The One-Hour Activist, by Christopher Kush – a great guide to influencing lawmakers and others.)

Principle 1: Where you live

If you want to change something in your municipality, at the state level, or nationwide, you need to know who’s running the show. Is it the mayor? City Council? Borough Council? Township or county supervisors? A state representative or senator? Your member of Congress or U.S. senator? Whoever it is, you have to establish that you live in the area where you want the change and make sure that you reach out to the people who can make a difference.

Principle 2: How and how well you communicate

Whether you send an email or a personal note, pick up the phone, or visit a politician’s office, you need to know how to cut through the noise and make sure your communication is noticed (and acted on). Some of the key points are: keeping it short and simple, making it personal, and making it compelling. I’ll say more about these points below.

Principle 3: Who else is asking for the same thing?

 If 20 or 50 or 100 people in your neighborhood want that stop sign, in addition to you, it’s more likely to happen. If a substantial number of voters in your state legislative district want the same outcome as you on that bill, along with those in every other legislative district across your state, you’re more likely to get what you want. If a significant number of the constituents of the 435 members of the U.S. Congress and the 100 U.S. senators across the country want more funding for diabetes research, there’s a good chance it’s going to happen.

So, here’s what you can do to get started.

1.       Know your elected officials. You probably know who your local officials are and who’s the governor of your state. But do you know who represents you in your state legislature? How about in the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate? Wherever you live, you should be able to find your federal and state (and some local) officials via this official U.S. government site: https://www.usa.gov/elected-officials/

2.       Get to know them as individuals. As much as you can, try to build a long-term, personal relationship with your elected officials. Let them know who you are, where you live and work, and how your family, your background, and your experience have developed your political leanings and defined your needs.

3.       Keep things short and simple. Two pages max for a letter, but less is usually better. Tell them where you live, that you vote, and that the issue you’re writing about is important to you. Don’t get bogged down in statistics or the legislative process. Just tell them why the issue is important to you personally and what you want them to do.

4.       Email, phone call, letter, personal visit? A former state legislator and longtime lobbyist I know says that nothing beats a personal note – handwritten or typewritten, doesn’t matter. Make sure to include your home address and your personal reasons for requesting action -– that makes the issue come alive for the elected official. Screening of U.S. mail means a letter will take longer to reach your lawmaker, but it will get there. (If the issue is fast-moving, pick up the phone. But have a script to work from.)

5.       Make a connection. Even an email can jump out of the pack. I once wrote an email to former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, who didn’t know me from anybody. But because I mentioned my background at the National Governors Association (which Rendell was chairing at the time), and congratulated him warmly on bringing NGA’s summer meeting to the state, my email got past Rendell’s “gatekeepers,” he read it, and he sent me a personal reply.

6.       Connect with others who share your views. Your voice is important and essential. But (per Principle 3, above), others need to raise their voices too. So, find ways to connect with like-minded individuals. Local issue? Maybe an environmental or civic group, club, trade association, or Chamber of Commerce in your area can help. For a statewide or national issue, same principle applies – but in addition to people who live in your community, you need to team up with people in other legislative districts across the state and congressional districts across the country. Here, a group like the American Diabetes Association or AARP may help.

7.       Don’t ever send a robot letter! If you’re taking part in a group effort, you have to stick with the message – everybody has to ask for exactly the same thing. But don’t ever send the group’s letter as it comes to you. Always personalize your communications to elected officials. There’s immense power in telling your story and saying: “I live in your district and I vote. This issue is important to me, and I want it to be important to you too.” For instance: If you’re looking for increased funding for diabetes research, it’s much more powerful to share personal stories about your struggles to keep your child safe and healthy than it is to cite dry statistics. A friend of mine has a child with Type 1 diabetes: I’m always moved when I hear her stories about her constant struggles with monitoring her son’s blood sugar levels, about having to rush to his school when his pump ran out of insulin, or about her hopes for improved treatment or a cure. If her stories move me, they would move legislators too.

8.       Make your issues their issues. I picked up this phrase – “Make your issues their issues” — from a highly effective higher education lobbyist I’ve worked with. Let’s say you went to a public university, and you want your state legislators to back healthy public funding for your alma mater. (That’s what I urged alumni and other friends of Penn State to do when I was director of the Penn State Grassroots Network.) I often urged alumni to tell their elected officials (A) how their Penn State degree made it possible for them to become successful in life and in work; (B) how Penn State makes a Pennsylvania a better place through its teaching, research, and public service; and (C) how Penn State’s two dozen locations across the state educate *their* constituents, who are very likely to stick around and put their education to work at home, thereby strengthening the local community and boosting the local economy.

9.       Become a resource. As your relationship with your elected officials grows, help them out. Don’t just write them when you want something. Keep your finger on the pulse of your community and let them know what’s going on. They’ll get to know you, they’ll value your input, and they’ll be eager to hear from you when you need something.

10.   Be respectful, and always say thanks. Always, always, always be polite and respectful in your communications with elected officials. And say thank you. They probably hear lots more complaints than praise, so when they do something you like, drop them a line and let them know you appreciate it.

Well, this barely scratches the surface, but I’d better wrap this up. I hope these principles and pointers are helpful to you. Remember, your voice can and does make a difference – if you’re smart about how and when you use it, and you join with other people who want the same thing. It’s not only gratifying to be part of the process and know you’re making a difference – it can be fun too! Finally, many thanks to Stephanie Shirley of Bennis Public Relations for the opportunity to do this “guest blog” about political advocacy!


Alan Janesch is a writer and editor and the former director of the Penn State Grassroots Network, a legislative education and advocacy program sponsored until recently by the Penn State Alumni Association.  You can follow him on Twitter at @AJanesch

His career includes stints on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., in higher education communications at Penn State and Bucknell University, and as a reporter for two Lehigh Valley newspapers.

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