Mastering Meetings with Policymakers
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- Step 1: Identify Your Targets
- Step 2: Request a Meeting
- Step 3: Prepare for Your Meeting
- Step 4: Have the Meeting
- Step 5: After the Meeting
- Ongoing: Cultivating the Relationship
Early childhood educators understand the importance of building strong, consistent, and supportive relationships in their work with children and families. When it comes to being an advocate, building those relationships with policy makers is equally important—and there is no better way to do it than with face-to-face meetings with your elected officials and their staff.
Policy makers value your experience and expertise as early childhood educators and allies. They value their constituents, who vote them into (or out of) office. Hearing from members of our field, especially those who come from their states or districts, means they receive critical insight on the impact of policies and legislation on the lives of children, families, and the communities they represent.
Below, you will find 5 steps with tips to keep in mind as you schedule, prepare, conduct, and follow up after a meeting with your elected officials at all levels of government. It may not always feel like it, but every interaction is a critical part of our work to achieve a vision in which all young children thrive and learn in a society dedicated to ensuring they reach their full potential.
Conduct research to identify which policy makers and their staff members you should reach out to, based on your priorities and their ability to influence early childhood education-related legislation and policies. At the same time, work to identify individuals within and outside of our field (e.g. business leaders, medical practitioners, professionals in higher education) who support your priorities and are able to build on your message. Don’t wait until you need something to begin building a relationship. Ideally, your first meeting should be an introduction.
Once you identify your targets, begin outreach to their offices. Engage their staff by reaching out to the chief of staff, legislative director, or legislative assistant assigned to your issue area.
- Send emails and follow up with phone calls
- Proofread! Double check the spelling of the names of the policy maker and staff and the name / number of legislation you’re referencing (if applicable)
- Offer a few days and times that you are available
- Be the squeaky (but respectful) wheel
Do the Research
Before you meet a policy maker, it is important that you research these topics:
- The policy maker’s district → What are the boundaries? What are the major cities or communities of interest?
- The policy maker’s personal history → Read the bio provided on their website to get a sense of their personal and professional experience and to identify opportunities to make a personal connection (i.e., do they have young children? Are they a grandparent?).
- Issues that are important to them → Look through their website for issues that are highlighted. Find out if they use social media. What do they post about?
- Their voting record → Project Vote Smart (http://votesmart.org/) and League of Women Voters (http://lwv.org/) are two excellent resources you can use to research and review their voting record.
Determine Who Will Join You
As you prepare for meetings with policy makers, if you’re going with a group, it is important to know who will be attending the meeting and what role each person will play. Clarify beforehand who will be the primary spokesperson, the storyteller, and the notetaker, and who will offer the “out of field perspective” (this is a great role from someone speaking on the importance of early childhood education for other sectors). Everyone should have a specific role during the meeting, and each role should have talking points the group develops and agrees to before the meeting, which bring us to the next step.
Develop and Practice Your Talking Points
If you are part of a national organization, your talking points should reflect and personalize the positions and requests of the broader whole, adding to a unified message around the need for continued investments in the nation’s youngest children. No matter how passionate you are about this cause, fight the urge to improvise your message by following these guidelines:
- Pick no more than three priorities, plus back-ups
- Discuss facts/data and stories/anecdotes for each priority
- Identify potential state- or district-specific, real-life implications of policies that are currently being discussed
- Personalize your comments and provide local context—elected officials often prioritize issues that directly affect their constituents, and these examples help illustrate why your issue is important
- Decide what questions you want to ask the policy maker or staffer
- Brainstorm possible answers to questions you will get asked during your visit
- Discuss ideas for how you will follow up after the meeting
Take along materials to leave with the elected official or staff, including a one-page document that provides key information about your organization and your work. (For guidance on creating this resource, please click here.)
A normal day for elected officials and staff can be quite hectic. If you are well prepared, you can make a strong impact in five minutes or thirty minutes. Don’t worry if you have to meet in a hallway because a room was taken unexpectedly—and remember that you never know who is nearby, so be careful about what you say in lobbies, hallways, and bathrooms. The person next to you may be in your next meeting!
A great format for a meeting is as follows:
Introduce yourself and your organization
Briefly explain why you requested the meeting
Review your priorities, the need, and your requests
Engage the policy maker on matters related to their priorities
Tell a story that connects your priorities, the policy maker’s priorities/personal history, and your request
Offer to be a resource
Thank everyone in the room and leave printed materials behind
In the Meeting: Common Challenges and Questions:
- What if the policy maker doesn’t seem to be interested in what I’m saying?
→While the importance of your issues may be clear to you, remember that lawmakers and staffers meet all day with people who feel as passionately about their issues as you feel about early childhood education. Legislators may not know or understand the basics of early childhood education, so ask what their current issues are, and identify ways your issues and priorities might dovetail with theirs. Ask what your organization might be able to do to support the policy maker’s priorities. If interest still seems to be lagging, shorten your conversation and move on.
- What if the policy maker disagrees with my organization’s mission/priorities/request?
→ First, remember that a burned bridge is hard to rebuild, so try to understand the other side of the story and be prepared to respond without attacking. In addition, remember that hard questions are not personal and do not necessarily reflect any disregard for your issue. You can handle them by being prepared, calm, polite, and happy to answer any questions that are asked.
- What do I do if I don’t know the answer to a question?
→ Don’t ever make up an answer. It’s okay if you don’t know something. Say you’ll find out, and then follow up. Contact our national office if you need assistance.
Once your meeting is over:
- Take pictures outside of the office or during the meeting with the elected official, if allowed. You can share the pictures on social media and send them to NAEYC at [email protected].
- If policy makers request follow-up information, respond in one week or less.
Remember, this is all about relationship cultivation! Seek to be a source of information and a voice for our nation’s youngest children—especially those in your policy maker’s district. Provide information, updates, and feedback regularly to the policy maker’s office to strengthen your position as an early childhood expert and resource. Take advantage of all vehicles for engagement, including letters, emails, in-person meetings, town halls, and site visits. (Check out our resources on how to invite a policy maker to a site visit and how to organize a site visit for a policy maker.)
The tips are adapted from the guide “Building an Effective Nonpartisan Electoral Strategy” found on the NAEYC website here.