8 Rules for Effective Communication with Members of Congress and Their Staff

Greg McCarthy

[Also authored by Crystal Benton and Nicole Todd]

With Congress returning for what will be a very busy year, we surveyed our Powell Tate staff who served in Congressional offices and a number of current Congressional staff to develop a list of rules for effectively engaging Congressional offices. Here are our best practices for delivering your message and making an impact on Capitol Hill.

1. Staff are Busy – Prepare to Tell Your Story Clearly: The one thing we always hear from Congressional staff is that they are overwhelmed with work and information. Meetings and requests blur into each other. It is important to stand out and make an impact. Spend time before your meeting or outreach to Congressional staff to develop a clear message, narrative, and request, supported by graphically compelling materials — in both printed and electronic formats. Tell your story and deliver your message in a clear, concise and easily understood manner.

2. Know What You Want – What is the “To-Do”: Congressional staff are focused on and motivated by action items. Too often staff walk out of a meeting not knowing what the request (or “ask”) is. Without clear requests for action they can take to their Member for a decision nothing will come of the meeting. Clearly define what action you want the Member of Congress to take on your behalf.

3. Keep it Relevant — Politics is Local: Explain up front why you’re asking what you’re asking from the staff member. They may not make the connection between the subject matter, your request and why their Member of Congress may be interested. Be clear: Is the issue relevant to the Member of Congress’ district, state, Committee assignment? How will constituents be impacted? Never assume the staff will make the connection.

4. Keep it Short — Get to the Point: Staff in Congressional offices are handling multiple issues at a time. In emails and in meetings, tell them what you are asking for first and then follow with the details of your request. That will get them focused on the purpose of the meeting and thinking about how they can help. Provide background information in both written and electronic format.

5. Help Them Tell Your Story — Think Cut-and-Paste: Congressional staff are always looking for useful statistics and facts to use in floor statements, speeches and letters to constituents. Make it easy for them to support your case by providing information in a format where they can cut and paste directly from information you provided. Become a go-to resource for them by providing useful information (short facts, infographics, statements, etc.) on your website, Facebook page, etc. so staff can easily find the information that helps them help you. Cite experts and opinion leaders who support your position to show trends and consensus.

6. Share Information — Knowledge is Power: Help the staff members stay up on the latest intelligence on an issue. Never assume they see everything that is written on a subject or have heard the latest news. Send them timely updates or share what you have heard from other offices in your meetings. Always remember to keep it short and avoid too frequent contact. (See #1-Staff are Busy.) And always send a “Thank You” note after your meeting.

7. Engage on Social Media — Help Them Spread News: Congressional staff, particularly the communications offices, seek content they can use on their social media platforms (Twitter, Facebook, etc.). Seek opportunities to engage on social media. Subscribe to their social media platforms and redistribute posts relevant to your issues. Also, post content on your platforms that the office may find useful, such as references to the Member of Congress.

8. Every Office is Unique — Do Your Research: Remember that every Congressional office is unique. There is no one way to approach a Congressional office, so take time to research the office to ensure you are reaching out to the appropriate staff member with the most effective message and materials.

Greg McCarthy spent 12 years working for U.S. Senators Jack Reed and Bill Bradley. Crystal Benton served as Senator John McCain’s press secretary and as deputy communications director to his 2008 presidential campaign. Nicole Todd spent two years working for U.S. Senator Harry Reid.


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