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Writing to Congress (Transcript)

Below is a transcription of a “D.C. Decoder” video about writing letters to Congress featuring veteran Washington journalist Craig Crawford.

D.C. Decoder with Craig Crawford

Sen. Debbie Stabenow: Madame President, I received an e-mail from a woman in Levonia, Michigan, who lost her job last year.

Sen. Jim Bunning: Eleven constituent … either phone calls or letters.

President Barack Obama: Some of you know that I get 10 letters out of the 40,000 that I receive every day, for me to take upstairs to the residence and read every single night.

Craig Crawford: Believe it or not, sometimes your letters to lawmakers are actually read. Of course, there are so many different ways to communicate with lawmakers, starting with the old-fashioned letter writing, and then phone calls, and with new technology, e-mails, and now, social networking sites like Twitter.

It’s a communications onslaught. For example, Congress gets over 200 million e-mails a year. So obviously, not all of it’s getting read, which is why we wanted to come up with some guidelines for helping you get your message through the clutter.

Rule #1: Only write YOUR lawmaker

Craig: The first rule is make sure you are only contacting your lawmakers. Make it clear at the very top of your message that you are one of their voters. I mean, if you have a complaint against your phone company, you don’t write some other phone company.

When lawmakers get messages or e-mails or letters from people who are not their constituents, they treat it like junk mail. (Throws mail in a garbage can.)

Rule #2: Make your letter topical and compelling

Mike Kelleher, Director of White House Office of Correspondence: (Voiceover) Anyone that sets a message to us, it comes into our offices. Our staff sorts through them. They identify those that meet our three tests: Are they something that’s representative of the mail that’s coming in, is it representative of something in the news, and is it something that’s a compelling message.

Tip: Use words like “Dear,” “Please” and “Thank you.”

Craig: That’s good advice from the president’s chief mail handler, who picks 10 letters a day for Obama to actually read, and it applies to any communication with elected officials. Keep it short, simple and sweet. Even if you’re angry, stay polite. And on the electronic stuff, avoid the all caps.

Rule #3: Avoid form letters

Craig: Avoid form letters from advocacy groups. They tend to get ignored although they’re sometimes counted in polls for who’s for and against something. The best approach is to get personal. Don’t be shy about telling your own story if it helps make your point.

Tip: Just be you.

Craig: Follow these guidelines and who knows, you might win the advocacy sweepstakes: A seat next to the First Lady at a State of the Union address and a nod from the president for your cause.

President George W. Bush: With us tonight representing many American families are Stephen and Josephina Ramos. (Applause)

Produced by Andrew Satter, Executive Producer Ryan Teague Beckwith.