As Members of Congress make their New Year’s resolutions, many of them are likely promising to better communicate with their constituents. Thanks to a recent change to the franking rules and easy access to e-mail address lists, that’s one resolution that has become easy for House Members to maintain.
After the House Administration Committee acted in September to exempt e-newsletters from the mandatory reviews required for traditional mass mailings, savvy Members are no longer waiting for constituents to submit their e-mail addresses. They are instead seeking out new sources of addresses — and consultants are ready to make a sale.
“Most Members have been passively collecting e-mail [addresses],” explained Roger Stone, president of the Washington, D.C.-based firm Advocacy Inc. Stone estimates that a typical office has from 1,500 to 3,000 e-mail addresses on file.
To boost those figures and reach a wider audience for e-newsletters, Members are turning to groups such as Advocacy Inc. that sell address lists like those typically used by candidates to raise funds on the campaign trial.
Such organizations generate lists by matching voter registration files to Internet service provider subscriptions in a lawmaker’s district — potentially adding upwards of 30,000 addresses to a Member’s cache.
Members then take those lists and generate e-newsletters that are exempt from the mandatory reviews required for mass mailings, defined as any unsolicited mailing comprising more than 500 copies.
Though still subject to guidelines set forth by the Commission on Congressional Mailing Standards — commonly known as the Franking Commission — the rules change essentially gives Members more flexibility to regularly issue newsletters or other issue-specific updates to constituents, prompting a renewed interest in collecting e-mail addresses.
Under the new franking guidelines, offices must still have the commission’s approval for an initial newsletter to a constituent, but once subscribers have “opted in” for future newsletters, Members are not required to seek additional approvals.
“The main focus of this policy is on citizens approaching Members of Congress and asking their Member to be kept up to date on legislation,” said House Administration spokesman Brian Walsh. Similarly, Members are still required to follow guidelines that restrict the use of franks to constituent mail relating to public issues, press releases, newsletters, questionnaires and other official business. The rules also limit the number of personal references a lawmaker can make to him- or herself, and restrict overtly political or partisan references.
Rep. Charles Taylor (R-N.C.) is among the lawmakers already taking advantage of the rules change. His office issues its weekly “Capitol Connection” newsletter to a list of 28,000 constituents.
Chief of Staff Roger France noted that though the office collects e-mail addresses — “When folks e-mail us, just like we keep their physical address, we keep their e-mail addresses” — the bulk of its subscribers, about 20,000, came from an e-mail list purchased from the Right Click Strategies consulting firm.
While the office continues to send out traditional bulk mailings, France notes the office produces significantly fewer publications that it once did. Although its 28,000-member e-mail list represents only a fraction of the average 647,000 residents in a Congressional district, the newsletter is also published and archived on the lawmaker’s Web site.
“If I had everybody’s e-mail address, I don’t think I would do much at all in the way of physical postal mail,” France noted.
California Rep. Pete Stark (D) has made similar efforts to extend his office’s electronic outreach, purchasing a 31,000-address list from Advocacy Inc.
While the office is able to e-mail freely with only about 10 percent of its total list, it can build the number of “opt in” subscribers by including a section in each mailing, such as an announcement for a town hall-style meeting, asking constituents to sign up for subject-specific e-mails.
“In the new system an e-mail goes out to those people who have already expressed an interest in the environment” and invites them to attend an environmental-themed event, explained Rob Stuart, Advocacy Inc.’s senior vice president for strategic relations, who has worked with Stark’s office. Those same subscribers may also receive a follow-up newsletter with coverage of the event.
“There is an ability with e-mail to be more proactive,” Stuart added, noting that the electronic newsletters can produce “more frequent and more qualitative communication” than traditional bulk mailings.
Additionally, Stark’s office has also begun to experiment with expanded features, such as using the e-newsletters to conduct instant surveys that allow constituents to answer a short questionnaire and then view the results.
Despite the potential benefits of expanded electronic communications, Brad Fitch, deputy director of the Congressional Management Foundation, notes that Members face a variety of challenges in creating useful newsletters.
“Very few Members of Congress are doing good e-newsletters,” said Fitch, author of the forthcoming book “Media Relations Handbook for Agencies, Associations, Non-Profits and Congress.”
Among the most significant mistakes Members are inclined to make, Fitch said, are sending newsletters that are simply standard press releases. “They’re not writing for the Web,” Fitch said.
Additionally, Fitch said, Members often write lengthy newsletters, rather than short “sound-bite” style items with links to their Web sites. Other mistakes include sending newsletters with an overly partisan tone, or providing information at unnecessary times, such as during recess periods.
“You need to think like a librarian and not a politician,” Fitch said. “The ones that are being done well are the ones that are apolitical and informational in nature.”