AASV advocacy in action

Lobbying elected officials: Effective meetings

Would you rather have something done to you, or for you? Every day from within the halls of Capitol Hill, and from government buildings and statehouses across the United States, special-interest groups are vying for the attention of lawmakers and regulators with clear goals in mind - that, at the very least, no harm is done to their group, and that, at most, the actions taken benefit their group. Interest groups that oppose animal agriculture have already made a decision to have something done for them. They've taken their views to Congress and state assemblies. Where are the supporters of animal agriculture - waiting for something to be done to them, or actively pursuing a course that will, at least, ensure that no harm is done to them? Without the involvement of representatives of animal agriculture, the outcome is certain.

Every person has a voice, and every common voice joins together to create a movement. A movement with a message can be a formidable force. One of the most effective ways to get your message to elected officials is to meet with them in person. The following tips may help increase the odds that your voice will be heard. To you or for you? The choice is yours!

The five Ws

The following tips are written with federal legislators in mind; however, they may be adapted for use with state legislators, local officials, or government regulators.

Who should participate in the meeting? No more than three people. Ideally, all should be from the elected official's district or state; at a minimum, one person should be from the district or state. A group might include three veterinarians, or two veterinarians and a livestock producer. Whoever participates must have a vested interest in the issue.

A protocol tip: when you arrive at the elected official's office, the person who contacted the office to request the appointment should introduce himself or herself to the receptionist and provide a business card so that the receptionist can easily announce your arrival to the elected official.

Where should you meet? If you are planning to meet with a member of Congress, one of the best places to meet is in the district or state when the legislator is home on recess.

When should a meeting be scheduled? Call the elected official's office about 2 weeks in advance. Most legislators' schedules are fluid and subject to change at a moment's notice. Also, do not be offended if your legislator is late or must leave the meeting early or both.

One of the worst times to visit a legislator in Washington, DC, is in the spring (March to May), when the other 149,999 associations send their members to lobby.

If the elected official is unable to meet with you, take the opportunity to meet with the official's staff. They often have more time and may be valuable resources. Many elected officials rely on their staff for background information on issues, so build relationships with staffers!

What is your message? Message development is crucial. In general, you will have 15 minutes with your elected official. Disorganization is not an option.

Develop a message that can be stated in 5 minutes. Go the extra step and practice your message on someone who is not familiar with the issue. The feedback will help you refine the message.

Start with background information on the issue and state your position, with personal examples to support it. Do not overstate your argument or exaggerate consequences. If you know of any arguments being advocated by your opponents, state those and offer your rebuttals.

An additional aspect of message development is message delivery. Who will introduce the members in your group? Who will lead the discussion? Who will close it? Who will answer questions?

No one from your group should dominate the meeting. On the other hand, make sure each person has something to offer, even if it is to introduce your group and open the discussion.

Why are you meeting with your legislator? What do you want from the legislator? What do you expect the legislator to do for you - to support your position on a bill? To contact a regulatory official? To write a 'Dear Colleague' letter in support of a bill? Ask! Nothing is more frustrating to legislators than meeting with constituents who do not know what they want.

Try to find out the legislator's position on your issue. If the legislator does not want to commit to a position, don't be offended. Ask whether there's any other information that you can provide. If the official doesn't support your position, respond that you hope he or she will reconsider in the future. Remember that a legislator who will not support you on one issue may be your supporter on a future issue.

Prepare a one-page summary of your issue to leave with your legislator. Most legislators do not have the time to read lengthy dissertations on an issue, nor do they have time to decipher a scientific, technical, or jargon-laden document. The best-written summaries are those that are on point, concise, and clearly state your argument. When legislators want more information on a specific aspect of your issue, they will ask for it. The AASV has background briefs on a number of issues. Check to see if one is available for your issue.

Before closing the meeting, ask the legislator if there is anyone else you should talk to. You would be surprised at the information you receive from the question: it might include the names of possible supporters or the names of opponents to your position. If you are lucky, you might receive some valuable advice on how to lobby your issue more effectively.

At the close of the meeting, thank the official for taking the time to meet with you, and leave behind your one-page summary and business card. Also, ask what the office's preferred method of communication is: e-mail, letters, fax, or telephone.


After the meeting, follow up in writing. Thank the elected official for meeting with you. Reiterate the key points of your issue. Provide any additional information requested by the legislator.

Remember the basics:

  • Arrive on time.
  • Dress appropriately (business attire).
  • Be polite.

A visit with an elected official is always an opportunity to build and continue a relationship. Officials do want to hear from their constituents, but don't overdo it. Be selective about your issues, and provide ongoing follow-up when you have substantial additional information.

Next issue:

Building and maintaining relationships with elected officials