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Grassroots 101: The Dos and Don’ts of the North Carolina General Assembly

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What works best? Calls, letters, emails, carrier pigeons, faxes, visits?

It’s all about context.

Golden Rules of the General Assembly

  1. No gifts! Good news: Legislators are cheap dates. No gifts of any kind may be given to legislators. The gift ban is serious business. It prevents you from giving them anything aside from educational materials. Not a bottle of water, not a piece of gum, and shockingly, not even a paper bag full of cash.
  2. Honesty is the best only policy. As everyone around the legislature knows, you only get to tell one lie in your career at the NCGA because your reputation will never recover from it.
  3. Never say anything negative about one elected official to another. It will always get back around.

Meeting with Legislators

It is best to coordinate efforts to liaise with legislators through your lobbyist or lobbying team. They have relationships with legislators, they know the intricacies of how the legislative system works, and they have invaluable experience at the legislature. It’s best to schedule a meeting with the Legislative Assistant (LA) a week or two ahead of time, regardless of whether you are meeting at the legislative office in Raleigh or the campaign office in the legislator’s district. The staff member you meet is the gatekeeper. It does not matter how close you may be with the legislator, always treat the staff with respect. If the LA says there isn’t time to meet, don’t try to go around his or her back to get a meeting. Similarly, don’t dodge past the staffer into the legislator’s office without permission – this is government relations, not a football scrimmage. Sometimes a staffer will decline to schedule a meeting due to a hectic or unknown schedule. Instead, they may say you should just catch the legislator around the building and walk together to his or her next meeting, and that’s completely normal. Don’t get frustrated with the LA if you are rescheduled or bumped – legislators have shockingly little control over their own schedules. They are at the mercy of committee meetings, session schedules, and constituent needs. Constituents come first, so always let the staffer or legislator know if you are a constituent, whether that means a resident or business owner in the district, and name the city or county.

As your lobbyist will tell you, brevity is key. In visits, calls, and emails. Legislators appreciate you having respect for their time more than you could possibly know. Have a clear and concise point to make; they want to hear what you have to say but they often only have five free minutes to talk. A good rule of thumb is to have your argument boiled down to an “elevator pitch.” If you can get your point across in the time it takes to complete an elevator ride – or in this case, a walk to their next meeting – you’ll be in good shape.

Make it Memorable

Legislators and staffers meet a lot of people – make yourself stand out in their memory by asking questions about them and making a personal connection whenever an opportunity presents itself (about your hometown, school/job, children/grandchildren, sports, etc.). Present your issue, opinion or request with a personal story – let them know why it is important to you. Be well-informed and ready to answer questions – your lobbyist can help you prepare for things that may come up in meetings. If you would like, leave behind a simple, clean, concise position paper with your business card or personal contact information. It is good to be passionate about your issue, but you should never argue, get heated, or lose your cool – that’s not the kind of “memorable” meeting we’re shooting for.

Staffer Interaction Advice

The gift ban applies to staff as well. Treat the staff with the same respect you would afford the legislator. Legislators are trending away from staff members who simply answer phones and emails. More often than not, the staffers you are meeting with are serving not only as an LA, but as a Research Assistant or as a Policy Advisor. If this is the case, meeting with the staffer can be just as beneficial if not more so than meeting with the legislator. If your question can be answered by the staffer, let the staffer answer. Don’t take time from the legislator if it’s not necessary – the exception being if you do not already have a relationship with the legislator and would like to establish one.

After the Meeting

Write a brief thank you note or email. Send one to any staff members who joined your meeting. If you were unable to provide answers to any questions in the meeting, share your answers to those questions soon thereafter. If applicable and allowed, consider inviting the legislator to visit your business or facility. Make sure the legislator knows you are available to answer any future questions and provide contact information to encourage him or her to do so.

The Basics

If you have an appointment, show up 5 minutes early if at all possible. If you don’t have an appointment, don’t sit in the LA’s office for hours waiting. Introduce yourself. Don’t assume the staffer knows who you are with, what your issue is, or what you are asking for. They have an incredible volume of traffic in their offices every day, and a quick refresher never hurts. Unless you have a very close personal relationship outside the NCGA, always address members with their title (even when you’re not talking to them), making sure not to mix up Senator and Representative. When meeting with legislators, be a good listener. Don’t do all the talking; instead, have a conversation. Say “thank you” before you leave, even if you didn’t get the answer you wanted. Their time is valuable and it is appropriate to show that you understand and appreciate that.

Calls

Keep calls and voicemails brief. Don’t just request a blind call back – state your name, who you’re with, why you’re calling, and what response you would like (return call, email, support a bill, etc.). If there is background info that you need to help explain your position, email it to the legislator and staffer and refer to it in the call rather than rattling off a dictionary of facts. Don’t call back with an angry voicemail if they don’t call you back right away – the volume of communication they field every day can be daunting.

Emails

Again: Brevity is key. Don’t inundate them with facts and figures. Attach a handout if you have a lot of info to provide, but if you are sending your initial ask, don’t send them an encyclopedia. If a large group from your organization is sending the same email, make yours personal so it will resonate, just like you would in a conversation. Don’t be a robot. It helps to copy the LA on the email. Some LAs aren’t automatically copied on emails to legislators, and many legislators get too much email to answer them all. Copying the LA increases your chance of a helpful response.

Faxes

Yes, it’s 2016, but faxes do happen. Sometimes offices even get hundreds of faxes per day. Same suggestions apply to faxes as to emails. However, unless you’re still under the impression that wearing acid wash jeans and crimping your hair is cool, I would strongly suggest you stick with email. There are no extra points for going vintage.

Online Advocacy

Social media is increasingly becoming the preferred method to get a quick response, but be careful not to fall into the temptation of using it all the time. Don’t be the boy who cried wolf on a very public platform. This can be a good way to provide a public thank you or send an accolade. Beware: if you talk trash on social media, there’s a good chance the elected officials you’re talking about will see it. Even if you don’t “@” them, they’re still looking.

Social media, especially well-managed, consistent social media from a trusted and experienced organization like Walk West that directs your audience back to a well-designed website, is an incredibly powerful tool for drumming up grassroots support and getting serious attention from legislators. If you have the in-house capacity to manage a clean, useful website, and social media accounts with consistent posts, targeted audiences, corresponding images and infographics, and run decent data analytics, that’s great. If not, I would strongly suggest contacting us here at Walk West. Hiring a firm that specializes in digital marketing to build up your social media and web presence can put your client’s issue on the map and be the tipping point that helps you achieve your policy goals.

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