July | August 2017

‘It’s Great to Be Nice; It Can Be Dangerous to be Funny’

Brian Selander, a 2011 Toll Fellow and chief strategy officer for Delaware Gov. Jack Markell, has worked with public officials in more than 20 states since he began his career in 1994. The way legislators and constituents communicate has changed dramatically during that time, but the need for a clear, consistent message remains the same. Here are his best practices on how to communicate with constituents.

Make your priorities clear.

“Prioritize, especially with email,” Selander said. Some legislators set up automatic bouncebacks to provide an immediate response to an email, such as: “Thank you so much for writing to our office. … While we appreciate all feedback, our priority is to the people of X district and that receives first priority for a response,” Selander said. Such an email makes clear, even with the bounceback, that the policymaker’s priority is still the people they serve.

State your values.

Don’t just say you support a certain bill, since what’s in that bill can change dramatically. Be precise about what you support in each bill a constituent asks about. “You need to be clear about what values you hold around that piece of legislation,” Selander said. “If it’s a health care bill, for example, the letter back should say, ‘I share your concern about the rising cost of health care and the need for greater accessibility and will follow SB 141 closely and will ensure those values are met before casting my vote.’ You make clear the larger values behind your position on an issue, but give yourself the possibility to maneuver if the bill changes.”

Take a chance.

“Any contact you have with a constituent is a chance to reaffirm who you are and what your other priorities are. Even though they ask you about dog licensing laws, they probably would also like to know you’ve been working on jobs, schools and government efficiency,” Selander said. “Even if it’s only a few lines, don’t turn down the chance to explain some other areas where there could be common ground.”

Ask for ideas.

Selander said the instantaneous access provided by Twitter and email allows people to shoot off vague questions and concerns quickly, such as “We need to do something about crime.” Ask them to dig deeper. “People are surprised when you actually ask them for more thoughts about it,” he said. “… You can learn some really neat things from people when you ask them what we should do about crime. They appreciate that you actually do want to hear from them.”

Talk straight.

Selander said policymakers shouldn’t try to use irony or humor in emails, texts or Tweets. “A joke that’s great when someone tells it at a meeting … doesn’t always translate well into writing, especially when it gets out of the district. … It’s great to be nice; it can be dangerous to be funny.”

Take care.

Although email, Twitter and Facebook make it easier than ever to communicate with constituents, they also make it easier for constituents to share what you say with everyone. Be careful what you share. “The old adage used to be, don’t say anything to a reporter you wouldn’t want to see on page one,” Selander said. “Don’t say anything to constituents you wouldn’t want to see on page one either. Everything is instantly viral now.”