Working with your elected representatives
- Gaining access to decision-makers and other interested parties,
- Providing them with information on an issue or campaign,
- Putting your or your group's view forward,
- Persuading elected representatives to use their power to effect meaningful change.
Elected representatives want to hear from people like you – their constituents – for a number of reasons. They want to be kept informed, know how good a job they’re doing, and what’s troubling you – not least because they need your vote in the next election.
Theoretically, your troubles are their troubles – although it may take a little pressure for them to take your campaign on board.
This guide covers some of the different ways to work with, or lobby, your local elected representatives.
Getting started: who should you speak to?
First thing is to decide on a target. Who has the power to effect change and how can you access them? Depending on the particular issue, this power may rest in different places.
It might be your local council, your Member of Parliament (MP), Assembly Member (AM) in Wales, Member of the Legislative Assembly (MLA) in Northern Ireland or (for the time being) your Member of the European Parliament (MEP).
Once you’ve identified your target, you need to think about the following:
- What can that person do?
- What is their stance on the issue?
- What are they realistically going to do?
- What barriers are there?
- Can other individuals/groups offer support?
- What are you going to ask them to do? Simply expressing your opinion won’t change anything – ask for something specific.
- Who else do you need to talk to?
While the main focus of your lobbying might be your elected representatives, you may also need to work closely with others. At a local level, this could include council officers, members of support teams, eg your MP’s constituency office staff, other community groups, organisations and businesses.
- Find your local elected representative.
- See your MP’s voting record.
- Learn more about your local council.
Different ways to lobby
Now you've worked out who you need to lobby and know a bit more about them it’s time to begin. You’re likely to need more than one of the different methods listed below to get your local elected representatives on board. So it’s worth taking the time to plan what will work best, and when.
Lobbying is often a long game, and you might work with your elected representatives on a number of different issues over the years. So it’s always worthwhile trying to build a positive relationship with them if possible.
You may not see eye to eye, but generally they will be much more receptive if you’re familiar to them and there is mutual respect. It’s worth being mindful of this in all your communications.
This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t just get stuck in, though. When lobbying, remember that your chosen target might not be aware of the issue, or it might not be something they’re concerned about. Changing someone's mind takes time and a bit of perseverance.
If your target evades answering questions or fails to commit their support, then you might need to up the ante. Think about other tactics that might work, or look for allies to join you. Are there other people or groups in your community who care about the same issues? If so, why not build a coalition and lobby together?
Here are 5 ways you can lobby: by letter, by email, by phone, on social media, or in person.
1. Write a letter
A personal, hand-written letter can be very effective. Here are some top tips for writing a letter that gets attention:
- Keep your letter short and to the point. Local representatives have limited time – they may not read the whole thing if you waffle.
- Personalise your letter with your thoughts or relevant anecdotes as well as any messages or statistics.
- Make your points local. Though general letters might gain attention, wherever possible you need to keep your focus within the remit of your target.
- Don’t assume your audience knows the issues – keep it simple. Avoid jargon – if you can’t avoid using a technical word or phrase, make sure you explain what you mean.
- Style matters. The way you word your letter could be the difference between winning over hearts and minds and getting people’s backs up. Avoid self-righteous language – no one wants to be preached at. And avoid exaggeration – people will dismiss your arguments if you sound hysterical.
- It is always worth following up with a phone call to ensure your representative has received and read your letter.
- As with any communication with a representative, the more people they hear from, the more likely they are to act. So, if you can, get others to write as well.
- Include your name and address – so you can receive a reply.
2. Send an email
Email can be an effective way to start communications with your local representatives. But it’s worth remembering they can receive huge numbers of emails on a huge range of issues. In many cases they get lots of emails saying the same thing.
Personalise your email as much as possible to make it stand out. The same writing style rules for writing a letter apply here.
If you don’t get a reply it can be worth a follow-up phone call a few days later. Try to get a timeframe for their response. That way you can hold them to it and contact them again if they miss the agreed deadline.
3. Make a phone call
Speaking directly to your local representative is the perfect way to ensure they have heard and taken into account your concerns.
Here are some useful things to bear in mind for your phone call:
- Always be clear and polite.
- Remember social niceties – don’t jump straight into your complaints/concerns/requests. Building a good working relationship is key.
- Explain clearly why you are calling, what your concerns are and what you would like to happen. Remember, you can be both a concerned local resident and a member of a local Friends of the Earth group.
- Don’t forget the person you’re speaking with has other jobs and responsibilities. Be prepared to leave them a message if they’re busy when you call.
- You may not get to say everything you want to say. Your representative might interrupt you to say that they can’t comment on this issue and try to re-direct you to someone else or ask you to send an email instead. If this happens, please be courteous and consider offering to send an email setting out your points.
Once you have spoken with them over the phone, send a follow-up email summarising any agreed actions that came up on the call.
Top tip - Write a script for your conversation in advance
Your local representative will be a busy person, and may only have limited time to offer you over the phone. Using a script can help you get your key points across. Your script should include:
- Who you are and where you live.
- What you are calling about.
- Your particular concerns.
- Key facts to back up your claims.
- Anecdotes that link you with the campaign.
- What you would like them to do.
- An offer to provide further information by email etc.
4. Use social media
Social media can be a great way to complement other forms of contact with your elected representative. Increasingly politicians use social media to talk to the people they represent, but you’ll need to do some research first – not all of them are on Twitter or Facebook.
Because of its transparency, social media can make your lobbying easier and more effective. But remember that much of what you and your elected representative say will be in the public domain for others to see.
The same rules apply as with other forms of lobbying. But there are other specific things to think about when lobbying on social media.
- Don't be a troll: Stay professional – no swearing, tastelessness or personal attacks. Remember, you're trying to persuade this person, not call them out.
- Be original: Try to create content that will catch the eye. Use appropriate imagery. Also, if possible avoid generic re-postings of others' work – these are easier to ignore.
- Know what you are saying: Avoid posting anything you haven't corroborated. Any misinformation could permanently damage your reputation.
- Be direct and concise: Make sure your content is focused and to the point – social media, even more than other forms of lobbying, can be easy to wash over. If your content is vague and long it is likely to be ignored.
- Look for hashtags: Find out what else is being said on the issue. Link in with others' work by using hashtags to ensure the largest possible reach. Hashtagify is a great site that helps to find popular related tags. Use 1 or 2 hashtags; if you use too many it reduces further interaction. So, for example, #cleanair and #Xcouncil or #representativename if you are campaigning around air pollution in your area.
- Moderation: Do not constantly tag your intended target or barrage them with posts or tweets. Once or twice on an issue should suffice. People are busy – show respect for their workload.
- Key moments: At key times, such as in the lead-up to an important vote, it could be a good idea to ignore the previous advice – and tweet up to once or twice a day with different persuasive information.
- Focus: Try to avoid lobbying on too many different issues at once. This can damage your reputation as someone in the know, making it easier to ignore your concerns.
- It's just one arrow: Social media lobbying is just one method available to you. Your campaign will be much more effective if you’re also doing other things such as speaking with, or writing to, your representatives.
- Get others involved: It’s called social media for a reason. The more people who target your representative saying similar things the more effect your actions will have. Plus, get your friends and family to share/retweet to get the message out and increase your network.
5. Meet in person
Meeting in person can be an effective way to get your views and concerns heard. Elected representatives hold regular surgeries or drop-in sessions for the people they represent. You can also ask to meet them at other times too.
You’ll usually get a 10-15 minute slot at a surgery, which can be a useful starting point. Here’s our quick guide to getting the best from your meeting.
- Arrive on time (if you're not early, you're late).
- Consider whether you need to dress formally.
- Decide on the main outcomes you want from the meeting. Do you want your elected representative to use their influence somehow, make a statement of support, attend a meeting or something else?
- Meetings are normally quite short, so plan (up to) 3 key messages to focus the discussion on. Prepare some key facts/stats to back up your points.
- Don’t worry about not being an expert. You have a right to put your points across regardless. Plus, you will often know far more than the person you are lobbying.
- Decide on whether you will make an appointment as an individual or go as a group appointment with others who care about the issue.
- The way you communicate your message is almost as important as what it is. Consider appearance, body language. Be confident and assertive but stay calm, polite and respectful.
- Ask them to do something specific.
- Give them a reason to act – is it a moral issue? Can you demonstrate mass public support? Think about a carrot-and-stick approach. What’s in it for them (eg positive local media coverage, being held in high esteem by the public and key stakeholders). What should they be afraid of as a consequences of not acting (eg mounting local concern about the issue, you have the press on side)?
- Keep to your agenda – don’t let them talk around the issue while saying nothing.
- Don’t be afraid to ask again whether they will support your issue if they haven’t answered the question.
- If they’re non-committal, ask if there is any other information you can provide them that would help.
- Offer to send further information on any point of particular interest to the person you’re lobbying. Take brief notes on what the person you are lobbying is saying. Keep a record of anything they agree to.
- Take along any briefing material you feel is suitable to hand over.
- Get in touch to thank your elected representative for seeing you.
- If there were any action points agreed, write to and remind everyone involved what was agreed.
- Get in touch with the local media to see if it’s of interest as a story. If your elected representative has agreed or refused to do something, this may help the story. Tweet about the meeting – if they're supportive, they might be willing to take a photo with you for this. Use @friends_earth with an appropriate hashtag depending on the campaign. See our guides for more: on creating a media strategy, writing a press release, and giving a great interview.
- Keep up the dialogue – keep your elected representative up to date with latest developments to the campaign. Invite them to any relevant events linked to the issue.
- If you don't get the response you want, be persistent. Encourage others to organise face-to-face meetings. Think about what steps you can take to succeed. Our campaign planning guide might help with this.
Meeting as a group
- Elected representatives will prioritise talking to and meeting people from their ward, constituency or region. If you’re going along as a group then you’ll need at least one person from the area they represent.
- Get together beforehand and decide which aspects of the issue each of you will concentrate on.
- It’s often a good idea to have one person just observing the conversation and making notes, and only entering it if the discussion is wandering off course or getting a little too heated. Decide who will play this role.
- If you are a group, don't disagree with each other as it detracts from your message.
- Consider whether you represent your community. Are there others you could bring with you during a group appointment to demonstrate that you do represent local opinion? Remember to be strategic about who is included in your group. Without compromising your message, can you include people who have power (heads of local clubs/organisations/groups) and ensure you are representative of your local communities (age, gender, ethnicity, religion)?