Wait a minute, Mr. Postman...
February 26, 2009 6:48 PM   Subscribe

What specific measures should I take to ensure that important people actually receive and read my letters?

I often get an urge to send a letter to someone important. Sometimes for positive reasons (such as a thank you for a great service experience), and other times for not-so-positive reasons (such as a rebuke for a member of Congress who voted for something ridiculous). However, I usually decide not to go to the trouble because I suspect my letter will probably never get to the person who needs to see it, for whatever reason (safety concerns, apathetic assistants, etc.).

Do you all know of some tips or tactics I could use to increase the likelihood that the addressee will actually receive and read my letter?
posted by cloudsandstars to Grab Bag (10 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Hand-written letters are ancedotally supposed to be better at getting seen.
posted by gryftir at 6:52 PM on February 26, 2009

Speaking as someone who has screened letters for an "important person":

- Type or, if absolutely necessary, handwrite very, very clearly with a standard color / weight ink. You wouldn't believe how many people send important letters written with Sharpie on looseleaf.

- Use nice stationery, or at least a standard business envelope and so forth.

- Don't add inclusions or anything that makes the envelope big / padded. A thin envelope containing only paper will be less likely to get caught up in security measures.

- Keep it pretty short; they (and their screeners) don't have time to read a novel.

- Make it clear why you are important to them- "I am a constituent..." "I have been a loyal customer for X years..." "I am the organizer of X club with XY very involved community members."

- Include an action step for the recipient... "I would appreciate your advocacy in the House Foreign Affairs Committee regarding this issue..." "Please continue to manufacture beef Alpo..." "Please make your position on this important issue clear to your constituents."

Anything that's perceived as self-promoting will be less likely to make it. "I invented a new flavor of Alpo..." "I would like you to review my book..."

In general, thank-yous are rarer and therefore more likely to make it through. Who doesn't like reading a well-written thank-you?
posted by charmcityblues at 6:59 PM on February 26, 2009 [6 favorites]

That's great advice from charmcityblues. I'll add another couple relevant to political letters:

- You have three paragraphs, not including "Dear Obama" and "Yours Sincerely, cloudsandstars". If absolutely necessary, you may also include a list of not more than five points, each one consisting of not more than one sentence. Go.
- Just put your argument. Don't bother addressing the opposite case; it's not a debate: the other side is writing too.
- Don't handwrite the whole thing, but do sign it yourself, with a pen. Don't photocopy it. Circulars go into the round filing cabinet.
- It does not matter how passionately you feel about something. Telling your representative that you will die in a ditch over an issue is not likely to sway them: give them reasons why *they* should.
- The more specific the concern, the better. The President will not read your letter about global warming or first amendment rights or Palestine. Your representative probably will read and respond to your letter about the provisions of an upcoming topical Bill or event you can name.
posted by Fiasco da Gama at 7:15 PM on February 26, 2009 [1 favorite]

Well, actually, your U.S. senator or congressional representative will probably not read your letter. Unless, perhaps, you're a local official, leading mover-and-shaker, or the like.

I mean, dude, THE STAFF can barely keep up with correspondence! Plus there are mark-ups, hearings, votes, meetings, fundraisers ...

Follow the above advice, but the best bet is to also get a copy to the staffer that handles the matter you are writing about, or to send the letter to the district office. District offices are a whole 'nuther world.

MeMail, if you like.
posted by jgirl at 7:30 PM on February 26, 2009

I should add that all offices are different; the Congress is really like 540 teeny tiny little companies with their own customs and folkways.

I worked for a member who did sign all outgoing letters, or we "forged" them.

I worked for a member whose chief of staff read every incoming letter; at least a glance, to get a pulse reading.

Of course if the staff finds something particularly appealing or compelling, it can go to the member. I used to send such items to another member I worked for, and ask her to sign it personally.

Mail is often quoted to a member in a staff meeting.

But, most people have NO idea of the true volume of mail.
posted by jgirl at 7:38 PM on February 26, 2009

charmcityblues, has pretty much nailed it, but I bet if you did write Alpo suggesting a new flavor you would get a response [proof].

I kind of, sort of, consider myself an expert in this.

Additional advice:

Just because they don't respond doesn't lessen the value of the writing or mean it wasn't read. I am totally proud of myself for writing Iowa Congressman Steve King and telling him I thought he was a "hate mongering, homophobic, racist bigot and a shame to the state of Iowa." Made me feel better. I'd probably be better served writing his constituents, but I don't have that kind of time or money.

Don't expect a high response rate, even with the best written letter. I write the dumbest letters out there and my response rate is still about 20%. Ironically, it's way way less when I have a legitimate complaint.

Write. Obsessing about whether or not it gets to the person and gets read probably misses your ultimate goal (which you didn't exactly state). Even if it never makes it to the intended target doesn't mean it didn't have influence. Just because you get no reply doesn't mean it wasn't tallied and added to the list of "People who hate this stimulus package."

If all you're looking for is proof it arrived and was processed, then rather than asking for a reply, ask for an autographed photo instead. Politicians have a hard time resisting this. I sent former VP Cheney an asshat letter, and while he didn't address my question, he did send me a photo (personalized to my girlfriend to boot!), so I know it was at least received. Bush ignored me though. Twice.

Be persistent. If you really care about something, and feel ignored, write back. Still feel neglected, take it higher. Write that person's boss. Write your local paper. Make a blog post. Make noise.

I've written some 400+ letters since June of '08. I have about 100 responses. I'm an asshat. I'd be willing to bet if you're not an asshat like me (and who can be?) when you write your response rate will be higher than mine.

As jgirl says, MeMail, if you like.
posted by cjorgensen at 7:52 PM on February 26, 2009 [1 favorite]

Write. Obsessing about whether or not it gets to the person and gets read probably misses your ultimate goal (which you didn't exactly state). Even if it never makes it to the intended target doesn't mean it didn't have influence. Just because you get no reply doesn't mean it wasn't tallied and added to the list of "People who hate this stimulus package."

Amen! You have a voice in our representative democracy. Use it.
posted by jgirl at 7:56 PM on February 26, 2009

And the hardest part, seriously, the part I forgot, is finding the addresses!

That is if I am taking your question in the manner I read it. So many companies and individuals these days have feedback forms, email addresses, and website polls that they see no need to publish a physical address.

It's hard to find addresses for many companies. My letter to the RIAA and the California Milk Board both bounced. Even some of the letters I wrote to companies using the address off of their SEC filings bounced.
posted by cjorgensen at 8:08 PM on February 26, 2009 [1 favorite]

If the addressee has a supervisor or superior, I always take pains to append a cc to that person. I know that people who filter mail do notice that detail.
posted by Neiltupper at 8:45 PM on February 26, 2009

Hi, I do this stuff for a living, and my boss does read stuff that I think is worth passing on to him (although my previous boss pretty much never read any mail - it really does vary a lot by office). Keep it to one to two pages. Put a return address on the letter itself, and not just on the envelope (easily lost). Only write the Senator/Congressman for your own state/district - they really DO NOT CARE what you think if you aren't someone whose vote they'll need later, so writing someone you doesn't actually represent you is completely worthless, even if he/she sits on committees relevant to the issue you're addressing, or whatever. At/near the beginning of the letter, make a specific ask (and make sure it's something the recipient has some jurisdiction over - e.g. don't make a complaint about a state-level law to federal representatives) and then briefly explain your reasoning. Pick one issue to discuss, rather than making one letter a laundry list of ideas and concerns - you definitely won't get a response addressing all of them.
I'm going to disagree with the advice to send mail to the district office - this may work with some Members, but with the two I've worked for it will only slow the process down, since the staffers in charge of processing constituent mail have all been in DC and district staff just pass anything relating to legislation (as opposed to casework, which is handled in the district) on to the DC staff. But once again, that is something that varies by office.
Keep in mind that your letter is one of literally thousands that the recipient gets every week. The staffers who read them aren't intentionally trying to thwart you, they just are only capable of doing so much. I (and I think most staffers feel the same way) would love for each and every letter to spend a least a couple minutes in my boss's hands and get a detailed, specific, thoughtful, personalized response, but it's not physically possible. That doesn't mean we're not taking note, though.
posted by naoko at 6:06 PM on February 28, 2009

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