How exactly does one call congress?
Part 2: the call
(Catch up by reading Part 1: before the call first.)
As strange as it may seem, the phone call itself is the easy part. Part 1 was the hard part. Now all you are really doing is reading from all you learned and decided was important. Take a deep breath, and know that you are an expert in your field, and that makes what you have to say important.
Placing the call.
You have your congressperson. You have your research. You call the number you found. It doesn’t work! Oh, no!
There is a very small possibility the instructions given in Part 1 did not lead to the phone number you need. It’s rare, but it happens. If that is the case for you, there is a DC main switchboard phone number that you can use. The House of Representatives uses (202) 225-3121. The best number for you to call is most likely the local phone number which should be listed on their house.gov website. If you can’t reach anyone there, try their DC number. If all of that fails, use the switchboard.
Each congressperson has multiple aids who each handle specific topics of importance. For your phone call on this call-in day, you need to speak to the aid who handles healthcare safety. This is the person who is relied on by the congressperson to deliver important information on the topic of healthcare, and this person is who has a direct line to your congressperson on all that you want to communicate. Save this person’s information for as long as your congressperson is in office. You may need them again in the future.
It is important to prepare yourself for the high probability that you will not be able to speak to this aid or the congressperson directly at the time you call. This means you will need to leave a message. This is where your elevator speech will be needed. Be respectful of the time of this person who just answered the phone (imagine how many calls they must get in a day!) and keep this speech below a minute. (I highly recommend practicing it before calling so you know you wont trip on your words.) The person you get to speak to on your initial call will need to know why you are calling, and will take a message for the aid or congressperson to call back (more than likely it will be the aid who calls, not the congressperson). At this point, you can also ask for the phone number or email address of the aid as well. This way, if you do not receive a phone call back, you can try again with their direct line or their email address.
In my own experience with this, I found that not reaching the congressperson or aid in my first attempt worked to my advantage. Instead of speaking to an aid about the issue, I requested a phone call meeting with the congressperson instead of speaking to the aid. More often than not, you will be speaking directly with the aid only, but you may have some luck with emailing the aid and requesting this meeting instead. It is not likely you will get a time slot with your congressperson on the day you call, but that appointment means you get the congressperson’s ear. Should you be successful in your request for a meeting, ask for a 20 minute time slot. This gives you time to tell him or her your hopes with H.R. 1309, and allows for a few minutes of Q&A.
No matter how your first call goes, if you do not reach the correct aid or the congress person directly, be sure the person you speak with takes down your information for a return call, and that you receive the phone number or email address of the aid who handles healthcare. These are the ultimate goals of this call.
The call back.
Finally, you are on the phone with the right person. How does this conversation go? You’ll need to remember your elevator speech, but you get to expand a little bit. Follow your own natural style of speaking, of course, but there are a few highlights you need to hit:
- State who you are and your occupation. If you happen to not work in healthcare, share that you are voicing concern as a patient. It is quite possible the congressperson or aid may find your concerns more valid than ours due to the current culture of this particular issue. We need your voice, too!
- Briefly state your purpose in calling, as an introduction to the importance of your phone call. “I would like to discuss a bill that has just left committee, H.R. 1309, Workplace Violence Prevention for Healthcare and Social Services Workers Act.”
- Share the reasons this bill matters to you, as noted in Part 1. Do you have a story? Is this bill important because of inaction, or even blame, by an employer? If you have a hard time deciding what to say here, visit the bill itself, go through the sections of it, and decide section by section why each part of it is needed based on your own knowledge and experiences. Maybe you have stories for each part, or maybe you’ve seen how each piece not being present at your workplace has caused problems. Whatever it is that you feel is important, share it. Try to remain mindful of time here, though. It might be helpful to jot down notes prior to this so that you don’t wander too far off-topic.
- Ask for their support on this legislation. This bill needs yes votes, and needs co-sponsors in order for it to reach a vote at all.
There may be some negative feedback. Prepare yourself for this possibility and remain calm. Lobbying bodies can be very persuasive. There have been efforts to stop this bill. What is most important is to remain factual, and to ensure that the vital importance of H.R. 1309 remains your primary message. Remember, the congressperson and aid have likely never worked in healthcare before. They don’t know first-hand what it’s like to be faced with the risks we face just by going to work. Paint the picture clearly. If it turns out your Rep actually has worked in healthcare, in particular if they haven’t been in direct patient care for awhile, they might need to be reminded. Some memories of the job fade faster than others, and this might be something they just don’t remember as vividly.
My congress person already cosponsored H.R. 1309.
If you are one of the fortunate ones to have a representative already cosponsoring this bill, they deserve a huge, “Thank you!” We still need their help, though, which means phone calls are still needed.
In March of this year, Representative Joe Courtney (D-CT), sponsor of H.R. 1309, released a Dear Colleague letter. This letter expresses the importance of this legislation, and urges other representatives to support and cosponsor this bill.
Instead of following all of the suggestions above, your call will be different. It is still important that you attempt to reach the healthcare aid or congressperson directly. When you do reach one of them, what you will be doing is thanking them for their support of safer healthcare and social work workplaces. Of course, telling them why this is important to you still does matter. You will be asking them if they can send their colleagues the Dear Colleague letter, or you will ask if they are willing to discuss this bill with their colleagues in person. Without enough cosponsors, this bill will not reach a vote. Ask if you can email them the letter and the bill. Get their email address if you do not having it, and email them the following two attachments (as links if there is concern for spam blockers not allowing your email through – ask!):
In your email, it is important to use a formal writing style with proper spelling and grammar, and if possible, send from an email address that sounds professionally appropriate (firstname.lastname@example.org* just doesn’t sound like a person trying to be taken seriously).
Concluding the call.
Ending the call with grace and professionalism is very important, regardless of the content and direction of that call. If the call went well or if the call was a disaster, it doesn’t matter. This person took time from their busy schedule to discuss this very important issue with you, and it is so important that we leave a positive impression for future potential collaboration. Always, always, always say, “thank you.”
As a personal touch and method of keeping the topic fresh in the person’s mind after they hang up, you should consider getting their email address to email a thank you in a couple of days after your phone call. In that email, it might be nice to include a few statistics or anything very brief to remind them that this is important and can possibly save the lives of social services and healthcare workers who are affected by this legislation. Keep the email short enough that they will decide to read the whole thing. No attachments should be included (unless requested by them) because spam software might block your email altogether.
My personal favorite, though, if you happen to be more on the old fashioned side of professional and courteous correspondence, is a hand-written thank you card via snail mail. This is far more likely to be an effective touch to say, “thank you, this is important.” This will absolutely make you stand out above and beyond a crowded email inbox. In that thank you card, there are no spam filters, so if you’d like to attach a single-page document with stats or a story, that’s the place to do it. Again, make this short enough they will read the whole thing. The important thing here is that we express gratitude effectively.
You did it! Tell the world!
You contacted congress! You were #SilentNoMore! Take a deep breath and know that YOU made a difference.
After your first phone call, even if all you could do with that first call is leave a message, go to Facebook and Twitter, and tell everyone:
“I was #SilentNoMore on #CallInDay in support of #HR1309!”
The reason you will do this even if you just left a message on the initial phone call is to spread the word about what we are doing. The more voices we have, the louder our message. Ask your friends, family, and colleagues to also call. After you get that phone call back, don’t forget to update!
“I was #SilentNoMore in support of #HR1309! #ThankYou [congressperson’s name] for taking the time to support ending violence in #SocialWork and #Healthcare workplaces! “
Keep an eye out for Part 3: but I can’t call congress. In the meantime, here are some links you might find helpful:
- Medscape: Using SBAR to communicate with policy makers
- How Stuff Works: How ordinary citizens can get get Congress to actually listen
- NYT: Here’s why you should call, not email, your legislators
- The New Yorker: What calling congress achieves
*email@example.com is hopefully a fictitious email address.