Communications isn’t just about sending a press release. Or making a phone call. Or responding to an e-mail. It’s about all of that, and more. As important as “what” you do, “how” you do it will make a huge difference. Below are some quick tips on how best to be heard. Learn more here.
LETTERS: Short of a face-to-face meeting, letters and other written personal communications may be your most effective communication tool. At the back of this guide are some tips on sending faxes and e-mail. NACHC Internet Advocacy Action Alerts contain fax numbers and e-mail addresses. What follows is some advice on how to structure your written outreach.
Addressing your letter to a senator or representative:
The Honorable (full name)
United States Senate
Washington, D.C. 20510
Dear Senator (last name)
The Honorable (full name)
United States House of Representatives
Washington, D.C. 20515
Dear Representative (last name)
Dear Senator Smith:
• State the subject of your letter
• Use the bill number or name, if available
• Identify yourself and your health center
Body of Letter:
• Explain the issue simply and factually.
• Give a local example of the impact of the issue.
• Say whether you support or oppose the bill, and say why.
• Be polite. Don’t threaten.
• Thank the senator or representative for their attention.
• Invite contact for more information.
Tips for Effective Letter Writing
- Write to the legislators who represent your health center and to the legislators who represent the district where you live.
- Limit your letter to two pages. One is best.
- A single, well-written letter from a well-known constituent may be more likely to influence a legislator’s decision than an avalanche of post cards.
- Modify sample letters provided to you to deliver your own unique message.
- Fax your letter if the time frame for action is short.
- Give your credentials when appropriate.
- Avoid personal criticism.
- Express appreciation for past or future support.
- Ask the legislator to send you a letter stating his/her position on the issue.
PHONE CALLS: When time is short, nothing works like a quick phone call to the office of key legislators. Your call is most likely to get attention if you have a personal relationship with the legislator. A well-timed call can be especially influential when combined with calls from colleagues on the same issue. If you don’t know your Congressperson’s number, call the
U.S. Capitol Switchboard: (202) 224-3121
- Ask for the senator or representative if you know them personally.
- If you don’t know them, ask to speak with the legislative assistant who handles your issue.
- If you can’t reach a legislative assistant, leave a concise message. Congressional offices do count the number of calls they receive on an issue – pro and con – and relay that information to the senator or representative.
- Focus on a single issue, making two or three key points in your phone call.
- Have talking points to stay focused on the message you want to deliver. NACHC or your state association often will provide you with talking points when they ask you to communicate with Congress.
- Show the impact on the legislator’s constituents.
- Clearly state the action you support.
- Keep your call brief, not more than three or four minutes.
- Don’t bluff if you don’t know the answer to a question. Tell them you’ll get the answer and get back to them.
- Leave your name and telephone number.
- Jot down the name of the legislative assistant you spoke to and put it in your phone book. Next time, you can ask for him or her by name and begin building a relationship. Staffers are more likely to listen to and return phone calls from people they know.
- Send a thank you note!
MEETING WITH YOUR LEGISLATORS: Face-to-face meetings are the most effective method of communicating. When Congress is in session, it is best to meet in Washington, D.C.. To control travel costs and introduce the legislator the work you do locally, try to arrange a visit during congressional recesses and weekends when legislators often return to their home bases.
Requesting A Meeting:
- Contact the senator’s or representative’s Washington, D.C., office and ask to speak with the appointment secretary.
- Explain whom you represent and the reason you want a meeting with the senator or representative. Ask the scheduler how you can arrange a meeting. You may be referred to the district office if you are requesting a meeting in your state.
- Ask the scheduler the amount of lead time needed to schedule a hospital visit and send your invitation far enough in advance.
- If you are inviting the legislator to visit the hospital, send a letter of invitation from the CEO and/or board chairman (or a board member who has a personal relationship with the legislator).
- Send the letter to the office recommended by the scheduler.
Tips for Conducting An Effective Office Visit
- Introduce yourself and any others in your group, stating where you are from and what health-care organizations you represent.
- If you are going with a group, decide in advance who will lead the discussion and what points you want to make.
- Keep your meeting short and simple. Say why you’ve come and succinctly outline the case for your position on a particular piece of legislation or the issues that prompted your meeting.
- Give examples of how the issue affects your hospital and the senator’s or representative’s constituents.
- Stay focused on the two or three key messages you want to leave with the legislator. It is easy to get off-track and run out of time, particularly when dealing with seasoned politicians.
- Answer any questions asked of you. If you don’t know the answer, don’t bluff. Say you don’t know the answer, but will find out and get back to them.
- Leave behind a one-page position paper on your issues. Include your name and telephone number.
- Offer yourself as a resource to the legislator and the staff in responding to health care questions.
- Be prompt but be patient if the Congressperson is running late. They have full schedules.
- Don’t be disappointed if you end up meeting with staff, rather than the senator or representative. Legislators depend on advice from their staff because it is impossible for them to follow all issues themselves. Staff are gatekeepers and they can sometimes be the real driving force on an issue.
Tips for Conducting an Effective Health Center Visit
- Extend the length of the meeting to include a brief tour of two or three important patient care areas of the health center. (Allot about one to one-and-half hours for a tour, plus a “sit-down” meeting.) Choose areas that demonstrate the impact of your health center on the health of constituents. Walk the tour yourself in advance to make sure everything is in order and that you deliver your intended message.
- Provide opportunities for the senator or representative to meet key health center staff — a physician, a board member who knows the legislator, and an employee such as a nurse or social worker who works directly with patients. Inform participants in advance so they can be prepared.
- Prepare a fact sheet on your health center to give to the senator or representative. Include information such as: number of patients served, number of staff, employees and volunteers, amount of indigent care provided, Medicare and Medicaid patient load, etc.
- Notify your state association about the planned visit. Your state association can provide you with background information on the senator or representative and help you compile any statistics or information needed to illustrate your concerns.
- Make arrangements to photograph the legislator’s visit and include a story on the visit in your center’s publications. Send the senator or representative copies of the stories. If local press coverage is desirable, coordinate solicitation of coverage with the legislator’s press secretary.
Follow-up After the Meeting
- Send a note thanking the legislator and briefly restating your issue. Include any follow-up information that was promised.
- Provide feedback on your meeting to your state association and NACHC so that they may adjust their lobbying strategies, if needed.
GET TO KNOW CONGRESSIONAL STAFF: Building a good working relationship with congressional staff is as important as developing a relationship with your senator or representative. It’s easier to reach and speak with staff. Staff members play a key role in helping legislators reach decisions.
Staff people may know a lot, or nothing, about health center issues. If the legislator sits on key committees responsible for health care, someone on their staff is likely to focus on health care. Other legislative staff may juggle health care with other issues.
The level of expertise also may vary, depending on where the staff person works – in Washington, D.C., or in one of the district offices. While district office staff are usually not experts on legislation, they should still be included in your outreach. They are the eyes and ears for the legislator on how issues are playing back home.