How to Rock the Virtual Hill Meeting

With things opening up soon, staff and members of Congress whom we talk to anticipate virtual meetings will continue.  This is because virtual meetings allow more efficient use of time for the members and staff, as well as the potential for greater participation from constituents and advocates who can’t travel to DC.  While not great for relationship building, virtual advocacy can be productive and definitely worth the time and effort.

Here are some tips —-

  • Platform choice goes to the member of Congress or staff.  Unlike most other professional settings, Hill still prefers telephone so don’t be surprised.  While more and more offices on Capitol Hill have adopted videoconferencing as their go-to platform for meetings, some individual staffers prefer phone calls.  Whatever the case, let the congressional staffer decide the best way to conduct a virtual meeting.
  • Send materials ahead of time.  3-4 page powerpoints are great.  You can email other advocacy papers too as attachments, but don’t except the people you’re meeting with to read it all ahead of time.
  • Use visual aids.  Don’t simply email a congressional staffer the handouts you’d otherwise share during an in-person meeting.  If you’re using a videoconferencing platform to conduct a meeting, there are more opportunities to convey your message, whether it be through images, a PowerPoint presentation, or videos.
  • Location, location, location.   With a virtual meeting, you have the chance to bring a legislator or a staffer into your world.  Consider broadcasting your virtual meeting from a safe location that helps to tell your story or convey your message.  For example, if you’re a health care provider, consider participating in a virtual meeting from your workplace, whether it be a hospital or another medical setting.  
  • Plan ahead and select a “meeting captain.”  Plan ahead what to say – it will make the virtual visit go smoother.  Create a few simple talking points, 3-4 messages you can make sure get across in your conversation.  If your virtual meeting contains multiple advocates, give each individual specific messages or issues to discuss so that everyone’s voice is heard.  If your meeting contains more than three advocates, consider designating someone as a “meeting captain” to introduce all participants and steer the overall conversation. 
  • Check your tech!  Familiarize yourself with Zoom and whichever other platforms you may be using to ensure that your message isn’t held back by any technical difficulties.  Make sure all links work appropriately and your devices handle whichever virtual meeting platforms you may be using.   If you supplied the dial-in number, check to see if you sent the correct passcode.

Even when the pandemic subsides, virtual meetings are likely to continue to play a role in advocacy.  Advocates who would otherwise be unable to travel to a legislator’s office due to geography or scheduling conflicts can make a difference by connecting virtually.  In time, virtual meetings may complement in-person meetings and serve to strengthen an overall advocacy message.

5 Things to Know about In-Person Advocacy

Will we get back to in-person meetings on Capitol Hill?  When??  How?  COVID-19 is still around, even as the country’s mood is lightening about the overall impact of the virus.  And the safety and security of lawmakers and staff are of top-of-mind after the deadly January 6 riot and April 2 attempt at breaching the Capitol grounds.  Let’s explore  when in-person meetings might return and what those meetings could look like.

It is happening?

By and large, in-person advocacy isn’t happening, at least not on the Hill.  Since March 2020, advocacy has shifted online to videoconferencing like Zoom and telephone calls.  However, that doesn’t mean Members haven’t been yearning for a return to normal.  On March 10, House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) sent a letter to Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) requesting a timeline on when certain in-person activities can restart, including allowing visitors in House office buildings.  While Pelosi has not officially responded to the letter, many Democrats say it’s premature to relax restrictions, partially due to the fact that a number of Republican lawmakers have yet to be vaccinated.   

Any decision on when to loosen restrictions will ultimately be up to Democratic leadership in the House and Senate, in consultation with the Office of the Attending Physician (OAP).  While the Capitol complex and adjacent congressional office buildings are exempt from public health guidelines from the Government of the District of Columbia, leadership and the OAP are using local COVID-19 health guidances to inform decisions.  These guidelines were last updated February 23 and include masking, de-densifying Hill offices, staggered schedules, and teleworking.

What is open?

Presently, both the House and Senate office buildings are only open to Members, staff, and credentialed press, and while official business visitors are permitted in congressional offices, they must always require staff escorts.  House staff may only escort a maximum of nine visitors at a time, while Senate staff are limited to 15 visitors.  However, this does not mean that advocates have regular, unfettered access to congressional offices. 

What about off the Hill?

Over the past few weeks, some lawmakers and staff, mostly Republicans, have resumed some degree of in-person activities, including fundraising dinners, due to relaxations in local restrictions on event sizes as well as new CDC guidelines that allow small groups of vaccinated individuals to gather in-person.  Republicans are also hosting fundraising trips around the country.  Lobbyists and advocates are also interacting in-person with legislators instates and congressional districts where COVID-19 restrictions have been loosened more considerably. 

When will things get back to normal?

Anecdotally, some congressional staff and lobbyists are saying in-person meetings may not be permitted on Capitol Hill until 2022.  Whether this happens sooner or later depends on countless factors, including the pace of vaccinations, level of vaccination hesitancy, local restrictions in DC, and to what extent any COVID-19 variants impact the effectiveness of current vaccines. 

What will change permanently?

With most details about the future of in-person meetings on the Hill being speculative, one likelihood is the continued use of videoconferencing technology that can complement in-person meetings.  During the pandemic, teleconferencing has been used to great effect to connect advocates who normally wouldn’t be able to make a trip to Washington with lawmakers and staff, which leaves open the possibility for a “hybrid” approach that incorporates building relationships both in-person and virtually.

Furthermore, the aftermath of the January 6 riot on Capitol could serve as the basis for other permanent changes.  Even after the pandemic ends, some congressional staff and lobbyists feel that certain security measures could stick around, meaning limits on in-person meetings could persist.  For instance, limits on group sizes could continue, which would certainly impact large-scale fly-ins.  At the moment, however, both Members of Congress and lobbyists are more focused on removing physical barriers such as fencing and razor wire from the perimeter of the Capitol complex.  On March 15, for example, the National Institute for Lobbying & Ethics sent a letter to the Speaker urging the removal of all physical barriers by July 1.