By Amy Esther
Every day I read another story from a frustrated, discouraged activist who has been trying to call their elected representative, but reaches only a full voice mailbox or an endless busy tone.
It brings me back to the days when I used to work as a newspaper reporter covering politics and community news around the Philadelphia region. Every week I had to call elected officials or their staff, and most of the time they were none too happy to hear from me.
Since it’s increasingly critical that we make our voices heard, especially to the officials who are supposed to be represent our interests, I thought it might be helpful to share some tactics I used to use to break through the firewall. Most of these require a little time or effort, and a persistent (even aggressive) attitude. But it can be done!
1. Do a little research and try to find the names of your representative’s staff, especially those who work in the field offices or specialize in a particular policy area.
2. Start by calling every number you can find: don't ask if it's better to call this office or that one - put them all in your phone contacts and just call down the list.
3. Get creative: If you get an endless loop of recorded menu items and a full mailbox, start dialing random extensions (try '0' first). As soon as you get someone, take note of what extension worked. If they send you back to the same full mailbox, start calling them back directly and let them know it didn't work. They will quickly realize that you are THEIR problem until they can pass you on to somebody else.
4. Get creative, part II: Find out if there is a different office or department housed in the same building. Call them, act confused and asked to be transferred to your representative’s office. The point here is to make your call an internal transfer within their phone system. (I used to do this when a mayor's office had blacklisted my phone number. Every day I'd call a different department, like waste management, and ask to be transferred. They always pick up for internal calls!)
5. Another way to call: Google the representative’s name and find a recent press release. On it will be a number for press inquiries. Call them, and simply say you are with a local group and trying to find the name and extension for the staffer responsible for your issue area (like health care, for example). Write it down, then ask to be transferred, as in #4.
6. Use the press: Check your smallest local newspaper for the name of a reporter who has recently covered your representative. Call them up (just call the newsroom and ask by name). Ask the reporter if they can recommend a good person who answers their phone at your representative’s office, and a direct extension. Go ahead and mention that the representative is receiving such an earful from local residents that their main lines are all down. They might even take a quote from you and write it up! Let them know if there are any local protests or demonstrations being organized.
7. Show up to public meetings: The Indivisible Guide has some excellent info on how to attend meetings and events, so I highly recommend it. But in addition, remember that there are often opportunities to talk one-on-one with your representative or their staff. After a meeting, they will usually be surrounded by a few buddies or other officials. Just stand in that group, lean in and try to make eye contact. It may feel super awkward, but eventually you’ll find an opening to jump in. (I once had to walk with the group all the way to the representative’s minivan and be the last person standing with him in the parking lot, but eventually he DID acknowledge me.) Their staff may be easier to talk to, so introduce yourself and give those folks an earful, too. Also look for local reporters at the event. They love anecdotes about how a national issue affects your family and community.
8. Show up at their offices: Be friendly, but firm. Say something like, "I was having trouble getting through on the phone line, and it's really important to me that I register my opinion with [name of specific staff person]." Hold out and don't just leave a message at the desk. If you have a really bad experience (like security kicks you out), call a local newspaper. Again, they LOVE finding a fresh local angle on a national issue. Finally, if you're going to showing up a lot, I recommend making friends with the receptionist! He or she can help you.
Amy Esther is a guest blogger for Daily Grab Back; views do not necessarily reflect those of DGB.