What are the best ways to approach and communicate with congressional staffers so that your issue gets heard? We’ve gathered some valuable tips from former staffers to help you.
Staffers are your bread and butter. Where would advocacy be without them? They are the critical link between you and their bosses, and often they are the experts their bosses rely on for knowledge and advice on a given issue.
They can talk the talk and walk the walk. But how do you best approach them to get your issues front and center?
1. Be upfront with your ask. Know the upsides of your ask and any potential downsides, says Gary Meltz, principal at MELTZ Communications, who has a long and ongoing history of doing advocacy work on Capitol Hill. “Staff appreciate candor, and just because there is a downside doesn’t mean their member won’t get behind you,” he says.
2. Be considerate. Remember that just because your issue is the most important thing on your agenda, it most likely isn’t on theirs, says Meltz. Be persistent in your follow-ups, but don’t forget to recognize a staffer’s typically overwhelming workload and time constraints.
3. Connect the impact to their District. Staffers are most concerned about their boss’s state or district, says Rebecca Gale, author of Roll Call’s Hill Navigator and former Hill staffer. They want district or state-specific information, so come prepared. Tie broader issues or world events back to the possible impact on their district.
Always make sure you have information relevant to the staffer’s congressional district or state in the form of a leave-behind, Meltz says.
4. Be a subject matter expert on your issue, and brief them accordingly. “This is where you get the most bang for your buck,” says Steve Taylor, head of government and counsel for Public Policy at United Way Worldwide. Taylor spent 10 years working for four different republican senators, including six years as counsel on the Senate Antitrust Subcommittee.
“The real premium, the real value you can provide to them is being a reliable source of information,” Taylor says. This is especially important because funding for congressional staffing has been cut and there are fewer staff members to go around. They have to handle more issues than ever before, he adds.
5. Be prepared to defend your view. Staffers expect you to be an advocate, and they expect you to have a point of view, Taylor says. This doesn’t mean you have to make your opponents’ arguments for them. “But if a staffer asks you questions about what the other side thinks, be prepared to be transparent and open. Be good at rebutting the other sides’ arguments,” he says.
6. Be honest. Staffers bank on the integrity of government relations professionals, Taylor says. “When I worked on the Hill, it was very much one strike and you’re out. If [an advocacy professional] intentionally misled me, I would never take anything they had to say seriously again,” he added.
“If you want to have a long-term relationship with a staffer, they have to know you can be trusted, even if you don’t know the answer.”
7. Don’t forget committee staffers. Committee staffers are specialists by nature, whereas staffers in members’ offices tend to be generalists. Approaching staffers on committees will help you get your issue front and center where the rubber meets the road, says David Thompson, vice president of public policy at the National Council of Nonprofits. Thompson worked for six years as senior counsel and as policy director for the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.
8. Care about what they care about. Be prepared to think on your feet to adapt your message to address concerns the staffer brings forth. When a staffer responds to your ask with “Well, my boss is worried about ‘blank.’ You had better address ‘blank,’” says Thompson. If you can’t address the staffer’s concern on the spot, plan to circle back later with a different approach.
“It’s very much about the messaging,” Taylor says. Frame your argument according to how it would sound to someone from a different persuasion.
9. No wining and dining needed. Sometimes advocacy professionals think they have to wine and dine staffers. This can sometimes be as uncomfortable as an awkward first date. “Take away the rigmarole,” Thompson says. “Just meet. They are paid to talk to people.