You’ve heard it before: if you want to support or oppose a national policy, contact your congressman or congresswoman and let them know. For many, this seems like a near-useless piece of advice. Some people have a hard time believing that sending an e-mail, Facebook message, or even *gasp* a handwritten letter to their representative in Congress could have any significant effect. But is that really the case?
Of course, the answer isn’t a definitive yes or no. In 2011, CBS Minnesota interviewed Rep. Betty McCollum (D-MN) after her office received 650 emails and phone calls in less than a day from constituents urging a balanced approach towards reducing the national debt. Regarding her constituents, she said, “I want them to call me, to email me, to write me,” and she claimed that their personal stories could influence the nuances in her approach to solving a problem. But when it comes to her core beliefs, she acknowledged that constituent correspondence was unlikely to have much of an effect.
Indeed, messages from constituents seem to have a greater impact when it comes to more obscure, less politicized issues. The online service PopVox helped deliver messages to Congress from people around the country opposing the Mobile Information Call Act of 2011. The bill, which would have allowed businesses to place automated calls to people’s cell phones without their consent, was seen by many as an unwanted intrusion and a violation of privacy. Through PopVox, five thousand people expressed their opposition to the bill in twenty four hours shortly after its introduction, and another three thousand blasted their disagreement out in just a couple days before a hearing on the matter. Ultimately, the bill’s chief sponsor, Rep. Lee Terry (R-NE) totally scrapped it. “We have heard from our constituents,” he said in a letter to the House Energy and Commerce Committee “they are concerned about what they believe will happen should this legislation become law.”
The bottom line is, citizen advocacy can work because politicians and their staff really do care about public perception. They also want to establish channels of communication to get their own messages to voters. This is especially true in the age of digital and social media, where public officials (or their staffs) are more visible and accessible than ever, and have an unprecedented amount of ways to deliver information at lightning speed. A survey of congressional staffers by the non-partisan Congressional Management Foundation found that a strong majority (57%) felt that the Internet has made senators and representatives more accountable to their constituents. About 90% of the respondents said individualized letters (post or email) from constituents have influence on an issue that their boss didn’t have a firm decision on, and 99% said that the responses to these correspondences are important for communicating the representative or senator’s views. On social media, huge majorities of the staff surveyed also said that Facebook was important for understanding constituents and communicating with them.
Ordinary constituents have the ability to flex their influence by sending messages in high volume about issues that elected officials are ambiguous on and aren’t entangled in their core beliefs. To be a successful citizen advocate, one must understand how to target communications, which is something that we, as media relations professionals, do every single day. Recent data shows it’s likely that only about a third of all U.S. adults have engaged in civic communications in the past year. Have you?