Strategic Communications: The Effect of Citizen Input

The Saint Reportsaintblog, Social Media, Thought Leadership

By Owen Eagan

We all know that when your cause or issue is being considered by public officials that it’s essential to have your supporters’ voices heard. But what is the effect of citizen input? That is, how much input would it take to influence a politician? Well, it depends. This is because it’s really case by case.

A recent story by Marketplace indicated that it’s not unusual for a Congressional office to get thousands of emails and over a hundred phone calls on a controversial issue. However, this story also cited a survey of congressional staff by the Congressional Management Foundation which revealed that a far fewer number of people could have a similar impact via social media. Specifically, the survey found that 80 percent of staff said that it would only take 30 or fewer responses to their social media posts for their office to “pay attention.”

Although, a staff person is quoted in the story as saying that sometimes just one really compelling letter can make it to the legislator’s desk. This is something our team experienced while working for a client that was seeking to develop a casino in the Boston area. The site of their proposed casino had been contaminated through a long history of industrial use. As a result, our client had committed to spending $30 million to clean up the site.

One of our supporters wrote a letter to the Massachusetts Environmental Protection Agency urging them to approve the project in light of the potential cleanup. She recounted her experience growing up near the site and said that sometimes they would wake to a thick layer of soot covering neighborhood porches and window sills. She also stated that it was customary to close the windows in the evening to keep their eyes from burning. She added that many of her neighbors had died from Leukemia, most before the age of fifty, and strongly felt that there was a connection to the environment.

Her letter was so compelling that it was eventually made into a TV spot for a statewide campaign in support of the casinos. In fact, it was widely seen to be the most effective ad of the campaign. Her message was powerful because of the personal story she shared and how grateful she was to possibly see her community transformed by this development.

Public comments like this are invaluable because they help decision-makers develop a deeper understanding of the proposals they are considering. But, in addition to the quality of these types of public comments, quantity still matters. This is especially true when there is significant opposition from competing interests.

In these cases, you need to ensure that your public comments outweigh those of your competitors in both quality and quantity. After all, when trying to influence public officials, it’s mostly a numbers game.

Owen Eagan is a Vice President and Senior Consultant for Saint Consulting, an international management consulting firm specializing in land use politics.  He is also an adjunct faculty member at Emerson College, the nation’s only four-year institution dedicated exclusively to communication and the performing arts.