Congressional staffers are extremely influential in the legislative process. They give advice on how their member of Congress should vote, they make decisions on what should and should not be included in the legislative text, and they make recommendations to their boss about what he or she should focus their attention on accomplishing.
Any good lobbyist knows that the best way to influence a member of Congress is to influence their professional staff. You must learn about congressional staffers before you try to contact your members of Congress.
How do you influence a staffer?
But how do you influence somebody who works for a member of Congress?
In 1936, Dale Carnegie wrote the book How to Win Friends and Influence People.
His book was the first best-selling self-help book ever published and has sold over 30 million copies worldwide.
In 2011, it was named the 19th most influential book ever written and the lessons found in it are still relevant today.
Carnegie’s book uses basic principles of psychology and human behavior to teach the reader how to influence people to your way of thinking and increase your ability to get things done.
The main point of the book is that you can influence another person’s behavior by changing the way you treat him or her.
It’s worthwhile to examine some of the book’s themes and apply them to your interactions with congressional staffers because what was written in 1936 still applies today.
Tip #1: Don’t Criticize, Attack, or Humiliate
As Dale Carnegie points out in his book, when people are criticized or scolded, they never respond well. They end up resenting their critic and immediately view them as opposition or an enemy.
There is a famous story about the National Peace Corps Association, an organization that advocates for higher funding for the Peace Corps. One day, a representative from the group went to a fundraiser for a senator who oversees the appropriations committee controlling the Peace Corps budget.
The group had been calling and writing his staff and were upset that they had not convinced his office to support higher funding for the agency. When the advocate approached the senator to talk about the budget, his anger showed, and he came across as rude and aggressive in front of his supporters.
Even though the senator was somebody who typically would support the Peace Corps, because he was scolded in front of a group of supporters, he immediately resented the individual and his cause. While the advocate later wrote an apology letter, the damage had already been done.
People close to the senator reported that he was so enraged by the incident that he personally reduced the budget of the Peace Corps by $50 million. This is why you never criticize, condemn, or complain. It might feel good to get your frustration out, but it will most likely end up doing more harm for your cause than good.
Tip #2: Say Thank You
Carnegie writes in his book, “Honest appreciation brings out the best in people, and is such a more effective tool than criticism.”
Finding ways to thank staffers for their work and efforts is a much, much, MUCH more effective strategy than humiliating or verbally attacking their members of Congress in public.
When you thank members of Congress and their staff for a job well done, they'll feel good about the accomplishment and want to recreate that feeling. They will then be more inclined to support another issue because of your gratitude.
You can also publically thank them in an op-ed or social media post. This will enhance their appreciation because it is politically beneficial as well.
Take this advice, you will be 1,000 times more successful in your advocacy efforts than if you try to force people to see your way by criticizing and insulting them.
The infographic to the right gives some helpful tips on how to effectively say "thank you".
Tip #3: Be a Partner, Not an Enemy
To get a congressional staffer to work on your behalf, think about what he or she wants most, and then see how your issue can help meet the staffer's desire. According to Carnegie, “When we can combine our desires with their wants, they become eager to work with us, and we can mutually achieve our objectives.”
Congressional staffers are just like the rest of us; they want to do a good job for their bosses. Anything you can do to help them succeed in their job is going to go a long way to building trust and starting a relationship. Once you have established a relationship with a staffer, keep them updated if there is an event in your district the member of Congress might want to attend, forward them an occasional article in your local paper that is relevant to a policy they work on or let them know how an upcoming vote is going to impact people in your district. These types of interactions will make the staffer more eager to work with you.
Also, don’t forget, members of Congress care most about being re-elected. If you can position yourself as somebody who can help their boss succeed as a legislator, they will be grateful and willing to support your issue.
For example, let's say you care deeply about the environment but live in a district where there are a lot of coal miners. Instead of criticizing your representative for supporting the coal industry and polluting the environment, try to empathize with all the coal workers who lost their jobs in the last 15 years.
A different (more effective) approach would be to convince your representative to support renewable energy efforts in your district. You can persuade him or her that renewable energy will create jobs that will help the voters who are looking for work. You don’t have to get into an argument about whether climate change is real, whether the EPA should regulate air pollutants, or whether coal is dirty or clean.
By finding common ground, you can make progress on your issue while aligning yourself as a partner to your representative.
Tip #4: Mention Your Legislators Reputation
If you tell the member of Congress, or his or her staff, that they have a good reputation for something, they will want to embody those characteristics and will work hard to live up to them. For example, if you start off a meeting by saying, "Thanks for meeting with me. You have a great reputation back home for standing up for what is right," they will immediately be motivated to live up to those ideals.
People enjoy talking, so you must work hard to be a good listener. After you have made your pitch, let the staffer rationalize and talk about the idea because it will sound much better to them in their own words.
Tip #5: Let The Staffer Do Most Of The Talking
Tip #6: Ask About The Staffers Interests
The best thing to do is find out what their interests are beforehand. But if you can't, ask the staffer or member of Congress about what they are interested in. When you ask people about their interests, they feel valued. When people feel valued, they, in return, will value you.
For example, if your member of Congress also represents Hershey, PA, talk about chocolate. If their Alma Mater is good at football, ask them about the upcoming season. Try to find out what interests them and bring it up naturally in the chat.
Tip #7: Try To Lead The Staffer To Yes
If you and your member of Congress do not see eye-to-eye on an issue, emphasize and highlight the things you do agree on.
One trick is to ask them simple questions where the answer is most likely yes. Starting off by getting the staffer or member of Congress to answer yes will increase the likelihood of him or her saying yes later on.
For example, you can start a conversation by asking them, "Can I tell you about a policy that will lead to more jobs in your district?" or "Would you support a policy that is proven to help out our veterans?"