Citizen leaders often guide others in setting direction, opinions, and action. They play a critical role in an active democracy and in shaping the future. Training and commitment can make typical citizens into effective leaders. We present tips below on actions that leaders are often called upon to perform.
Get Active on Behalf of Rural America: Letters to the Editor
Your local paper and your state’s largest daily newspaper both want to hear from their readers. This is one of the best ways to advance your issues.
Some issues just cry out for you to express your opinion. Here are some tips for you to consider when you want to write a letter to the editor.
Keep it short. The letter should be fewer than 250 words and should focus on one or two key points. That gives the letter a better chance of being published and read.
Use the letter more than once. Send it to the major daily and local daily newspaper in your state. Weeklies are good outlets too, but remember they work on different deadlines than do daily newspapers; call your local weekly to find out what their requirements are.
Don’t delay. If the issue you are addressing is hot and timely, write your letter right away. Some newspapers take several weeks to publish letters.
Identify yourself. Put your name, address, and phone number on the letter. Unsigned letters are not used. The newspaper may want your phone number to verify your letter.
Make it legible. Some newspapers may require typed letters. If you have email, smaller newspapers may ask that you send it via email so they don’t have to re-type the text.
Make it personal. Use your own words and, if appropriate, examples from your own life or community to make your points. This is your letter, and it can take any form you think is appropriate. However, ranting and raving is more silly entertainment than informational. Make your letter thoughtful – something readers can learn from.
Call for action. If there is something that readers can do to help the cause or issue that you are addressing tell them so and be specific.
Beginning a Dialog with your Elected Representatives
Writing a letter to your member of Congress or state legislator is one of the most effective ways to voice your opinion on a specific issue.
Too many people believe that one voice doesn’t matter in the big picture. That is patently untrue; the rule of thumb in Congressional offices is that one letter equals the voice of 100 people. Both state senators and members of Congress track the letters that come into their office weekly.
Things to remember when writing your elected officials:
Be respectful and polite. Usually when people sit down to write a letter they are hopping mad about something. But, when you are trying to persuade someone to do something (this applies to everyone, not just legislators) making them mad and offending them won’t get you any closer to your goal. In fact, most often they’ll stop listening altogether.
Have a clear point and be specific in your illustrations. Provide examples and/or tell them how this proposed law or amendment would effect your life. Tell them the ‘why’ along with the ‘what’.
Always end your letter with the phrase, "I look forward to hearing from you." This lets them know that you expect a reply. When you get that reply and you don’t agree, use the letter as the starting point for your next letter to them on this issue. The whole purpose for writing a letter of this nature is to begin a dialog. Make sure they know whom they represent and what issues are important to you.
Your Voice Matters: Giving Testimony
Too often citizens complain about government policy without lending their experience and knowledge to the process. We share six tips for speaking up at public hearings.
Testifying at a legislative hearing, state or federal, can be intimidating. Whether you are asked to testify by an organization or you take the initiative and write a letter to the hearing committee, if you are chosen it is because you have a story to tell. Here are a few tips.
Ask for help. Call an organization that you belong to and ask for advice. They can often provide you with material to make your testimony concrete.
Prepare in advance. Write your comments down in either note form or completely written out.
You are important. Your testimony, especially your personal experiences, carries a lot of weight. Legislators know that you have taken time out of your day to come to the hearing. You aren’t getting paid to say the things you do; use that to your advantage and be specific about how a piece of legislation would affect your life and livelihood.
Show proper respect. The chair of the hearing committee should be addressed as "Ms. or Mr. Chair". The other members should be addressed as "Representative (or Senator) Smith" and so on.
Don’t repeat. Listen to others who testified. If someone else said what you had planned on saying, either take a different tact or say that your sentiments have been illustrated earlier and ask that your written comments be submitted for the record.
Don’t offend. If the legislators ask a question that you interpret as hostile, just answer the question and let it go. Don’t be the person they remember for your outrage. If you testify, it is obviously something you care about and emotions often run high. Keep things in check.
Building Media Relationships
Bring more recognition to your issues through effective story hooks and well-timed phone calls.
Understanding motivation, both yours and the media’s, goes a long way toward knowing how to get your issue recognized in radio, TV, or print.
Reporters and editors want to know one of three things. Is your issue new, local, or controversial? Without centering on any of these areas, you’ll be hard pressed to convince the media to consider your story. Why should the public care about your issue? If you have called a reporter to pitch a story, it is your job to find the hook on which to hang it.
It is easier to pitch a story to a reporter or editor that you know and have worked with before. This takes time. Find the person who most generally covers your issue area, and call them up to chat. Tell them that you are a viewer, listener, or subscriber in the area and you’d like to see more stories on family farm agriculture, ag concentration, etc. Call them early and often. Call if there is an event or issue that you think deserves the attention of the media.
Be respectful of their time. All of these people are on a deadline of some sort. Ask if they have a minute or if there is a better time to call back. If they do have time, concentrate on one specific issue, and keep them on the phone for less than 10 minutes.
For more information on how to become a citizen leader, contact Steph Larsen, firstname.lastname@example.org or 402.687.2103, extension 1014.