END OF YEAR STEERING SHARE: PHONE CALLS, YES, FAXES, NO — A CONGRESSIONAL INTERN GIVES IT TO US STRAIGHT

Steering Shares are an opportunity to find out more about the I&A Steering Committee. This end-of-the-year post is from I&A Steering Committee member Daria Labinsky, Archivist at the National Archives at St. Louis.

Want to get your message heard by a member of Congress? Here’s some advice from an intern in the trenches. Let’s call her Intern X. She spends hours every week in the Washington, D.C., office of a U.S. senator, fielding the calls and mail of the American people. While honing her ability to deal with difficult customers, Intern X is also picking up pointers on what works and doesn’t work when you’re trying to influence a legislator.

Note that this is what it’s like in this office; other Congressional offices may not operate in exactly the same way.

What’s the most important thing to know? “Make sure you only contact your Congress person,” she says. “I don’t need to hear anything about (for example) Elizabeth Warren. I can’t do anything about Elizabeth Warren.” And when you call a member of Congress who doesn’t represent you, you’re making it harder for someone whom they do represent to get through on the phone.  

What’s the best way to get your Congresswoman or man’s attention? Set up an appointment to meet her or him in person. Intern X’s senator hosts regular events for constituents in D.C. when the Senate is in session. There’s a section on legislators’ websites where you can schedule appointments in D.C. or in your state.

 “Town Halls are not as useful as private meetings in a conference room with 10 people,” says Intern X. “Even if you can’t meet with a senator, you might be able to meet with one of their aides. Town Halls are more for just asking questions.”

Next best? “If it’s time sensitive, then call or fill out a comment form on our website,” she says.

More about phone calls. “Don’t call assuming you’re going to talk to a United States senator.” They’re seldom in their offices, and the offices get thousands of calls each week.

Voicemail is OK. Try not to get frustrated if your call goes to voicemail. “Understand that they answer to a lot of people, and if you’re getting voicemail, that probably means they’re getting a lot of calls,” Intern X says. Rest assured that those voicemails are indeed being listened to—even on days when a thousand calls come in. “Don’t assume because you’re getting voicemail, you’re being avoided.”

“The maximum number of phone lines we can have ringing is six or seven,” she says. The interns and staff listen to and document all the messages, including the hundred or so that come in overnight.  

You need to provide some kind of identifying information–even if it’s just your ZIP Code. Intern X sometimes speaks to people who refuse to provide any identifying information. “I can’t record your comment if I don’t have a ZIP Code, because I can’t verify you’re from our state,” she says.

What about snail mail? If you want to discuss an issue that’s not time sensitive, then sending a comment by mail can be better than calling. “We can take as much mail as we get but only have so many people who can answer the phones,” she says. “And if you want your mail to make an impact, have a return address.”

What about faxing? “Faxes are useless. We get so many faxes. If you just want to comment or give an opinion, then don’t fax. We get too many, and it’s too easy for them to fall through the cracks.”

Don’t send form letters. They usually get shredded without reading. “Some offices have software that can recognize form letters,” making them easier to dispose of, she says. “Some of them are subtle, like, I read one that I didn’t know was a form letter until I read the same thing over three or four times.”

The petition-type email letters that many organizations email out—the ones where you add your name and contact information, and maybe personalize them, are OK, as long as they’re from a constituent.

Some postcards are OK. “Like, if it says, ‘Dear (Senator), I’m writing because I’m concerned about (some issue) and this is why (I feel this way)’—that’s OK.”

Don’t be mean. “Being nice on the phone never hurts,” she says. “I don’t know if it helps but there’s no downside.” She often gets calls from people thanking the senator for a specific vote, or even thanking the intern for answering the phone.   

And lastly,

No cash. “Don’t mail money to the Congressional offices, because we can’t legally take it.” (Like archivists have a lot of extra cash lying around. … )

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