ATLANTA—Ask Alicia Henry to talk about constituents, and the Washington, D.C., Council’s director of scheduling will tell you they’re the heart of legislatures.
“Without constituents, our legislators wouldn’t be able to do the work that we do,” she said as she moderated a StaffHub ATL 2022 session titled “Constituent Response 101.” “We work to serve our legislators, and I like to say that our legislators work to serve our constituents.”
But responding to and tracking constituent inquiries comes with unique challenges.
1 — Organize Your Email
William Brownsberger (D), who serves as president pro tempore of the Massachusetts Senate, says if you’re not making full use of email communications tools, both in terms of handling what’s coming in and sending out targeted responses, you’re missing a huge opportunity.
He created an open-source email software to help deal with the often overwhelming volume of email legislators and staff receive from constituents.
“Email is the main way that people reach us, and it’s our most powerful tool for reaching out to people,” he says. “There are offices that don’t actually keep up with email and it’s just crazy not to.”
But you also need to keep track of it. That’s where a constituent relationship management system can help. He says to look for a system that can classify types of emails, weed out bulk emails sent from various groups, block emails without unsubscribing and identify emails from actual constituents.
Your email tool should be intelligent enough to screen, recognize and parse addresses, recognize out-of-district addresses and offer appropriate automated responses, Brownsberger says.
“Email is the most powerful communication tool for most legislators,” he says. “Do it promptly, and use a tool that allows you to track what you’ve done. And then use that incredible knowledge of who cares about what in your district.”
2 — Connect Proactively and Authentically
Constituents often contact their legislator when they’re in crisis, says Beth Livingston, deputy communications director for the Ohio Senate, where she’s responsible for brand communication, strategy, creative content development and constituent outreach.
“It’s when they need something, when they need help accessing state resources, when something that’s important to them is being affected—whether that’s their health, their safety, their family, their business, something that matters to them that you can maybe help them navigate,” she says. And that was something seen across the board during COVID, but on steroids.
People crave authenticity. —Beth Livingston, deputy communications director for the Ohio Senate
“They needed information, they needed resources, and they needed it now,” Livingston says. “And it’s shown, maybe more than ever, the impact that state and local government had on those things. I think a lot of times, people focus their attention on what’s happening at the federal level and how does this affect my personal life. But, really, the more localized you get, the more impactful the decisions that are being made on your behalf.”
She said the pandemic spurred her team to start changing its reactive response into more of a proactive outreach approach.
“We wanted to be the people who proactively share important information to them,” she says. They decided to create a unique, tailored, authentic communications for each Senate member, including postcards with personalized messages that change throughout the year, newsletters and contact cards with QR codes pointing to resources and ways to connect.
Livingston says she encourages legislators to personalize their constituent communications across platforms and offer a variety of media, such as video, photos, responses to court decisions and more.
But the most important thing she advises the senators she works with? Just be yourself.
“People crave authenticity,” Livingston says. “So, I encourage you to encourage people that you work for, or if you are a senator, to just be authentic in your messaging.”
3 — Engage More Efficiently
C. Denese Sampson, executive legislative assistant for the Georgia Senate, has served the state’s General Assembly for 26 years. When citizens come to the Capitol, she’s often the one they engage with—and, she says, public engagement has increased more in the last six or seven years than at any time during her tenure.
“As a citizen, that is beautiful—I think it’s great,” she says. “But as a staffer, that’s a whole different story.” She points to ongoing protests taking place outside her window in front of the Capitol that have led to the installation of an 8-foot-tall steel security fence around the building. But while she and her colleagues are sometimes nervous to see crowds coming toward their offices, they still want to be prepared physically, mentally and professionally to respond to the concerns.
“The most important thing for us in responding to constituents is making sure that we have the resources available to us to be able to respond, whether that response is, we can help you with your issue, we can’t help you right now with your issue, or just listening,” Sampson says.
She says often, by the time a constituent reaches her team in person or by phone or email, their frustration level is already high. But over the last few years, she and other staff have been working to equip themselves with the personal and professional maturity to be able to handle those interactions, especially when they turn aggressive.
With so many constituents, they also look for ways to respond efficiently. They discovered some constituents were sending emails to dozens of legislators hoping for one response, resulting in multiple offices working on the same issue. They created a system to report which office was doing what to better manage the workload and see what changes were being made.
They’re also focusing on personal and professional development, ensuring resources are available to respond to constituents and knowing who to contact to help resolve problems. That includes building a contact list for all the different state agencies and affiliates.
Finally, Sampson says they are in the process of making a safe-zone room, “so that those times when we have engagements with the public that are scary, you have a place where you can go calm yourself and gather your thoughts. Because a lot of times it’s really a matter of getting yourself together so you can go back out there and do it again.”
Lesley Kennedy is a director in NCSL’s Communications Division.
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