Letter writing campaigns to the media and elected officials are an integral part of every activist's toolkit. As few as a dozen letters can alert a legislator to begin monitoring an issue or change an editor's mind. In addition, well-written letters stimulate debate among politicians and the public. By devoting a few hours a month to writing effective letters, NORML chapters can effectively educate, lobby and forge key relationships with politicians, the media and the public.
Arguably, if every individual who supported marijuana-law reform wrote to their elected officials and local media, the sheer volume of mail would force politicians to take notice. Since this isn't the case, it is vital that those who do understand the fundamentals of writing an effective letter. Below are some proven tips to follow.
Writing To The Media
One of the most effective, cost-efficient ways to educate the voters and influence public officials is to consistently publish letters to the editor in national and regional newspapers. The opinion page is typically the most widely read section of the newspaper, and letters to the editor are usually clipped and saved by politicians. Moreover, letters to the editor show editors, reporters, and local representatives what the "hot" issues are, thereby encouraging both greater news coverage and political debate of those topics.
Newspapers frequently publish stories regarding marijuana. Your chapter should view each of these stories as an opportunity to respond. Each letter to the editor you publish is an opportunity to promote your message as well as increase the public awareness of NORML and your local chapter. To better your chances of getting published, here are some tips.
10 Steps To Getting Your Letter To The Editor Published
1. Know your paper's policies. Be aware of editorial guidelines. Most newspapers have set policies regarding letters' form, length and content, and almost all require letter writers to include their personal contact information. (This is so they can confirm authorship.) If a paper does not publish its guidelines on the editorial page, call the newspaper directly and speak with the editor of the opinion page. (You can also use this conversation as an opportunity to educate the editor about the issue before sending your letter.)
2. Monitor editors' political leanings. Familiarize yourself with your paper's editorial slant (i.e. conservative or liberal), and hone your letter appropriately. For example, if you are a targeting conservative paper, highlight how marijuana prohibition runs contrary to republican principles like limited government. If you are targeting a liberal paper, mention how drug war spending limits the availability of federal funds for programs like education and the environment.
3. Be timely. Arguably the most decisive factor in whether a letter gets printed is the timeliness of the subject matter. Letters that respond to a recent article, editorial, and/or current event are most likely to be published.
4. Be direct. Many editors will not consider letters longer than 300 words. Do not generalize; your letter must be concise (three paragraphs or less) informative and compelling.
5. Get personal. Editors are more willing to publish a letter that demonstrates local relevance to the community. Include local statistics and personal stories that will make an impact on your newspaper's readers. For example, if you are writing a letter regarding marijuana arrests, highlight the arrest statistics in your own community. Or, if you are writing about medical marijuana, cite a relative or friend who is ill and could potentially benefit from it.
6. Don't prejudice yourself. Avoid statements like "as a marijuana smoker." The key of a successful letter is to get readers to focus on the message rather than the messenger.
7. Don't make claims you can't back up. Provide citations for your arguments, and never use statements you can't back up. You can write pages full of truths, but if one fact is incorrect readers may dismiss (or forget) the bulk of your piece, and attack you on (or remember) the point you got wrong.
8. Name names. If a letter to the editor mentions a representative or senator by name, they will see it. Elected representatives care about how they are being perceived in their district and pay close attention to letters asking them to take legislative action.
9. Encourage others to take a stand. An effective letter informs those who agree with your position how to get further involved (e.g., support NORML) and urges readers to let their elected officials know their views.
10. Be Reasonable and Courteous. You can be animated and assertive without sounding like an extremist or being rude. Think about what you are saying. Write the letter, set it down, and then read it a few hours later. Let others read your letter before sending it.
Writing To Your Elected Officials
Ultimately, there is only one way to persuade politicians that marijuana-law reform is necessary; their constituents must demand it. A powerfully written letter (not e-mail) is one way to do so.
When writing your elected officials, follow essentially the same steps as if you were drafting a letter to the editor. Keep your letter short and to the point: let your elected officials know exactly how you feel on this issue. (Sample and pre-written letters are available on NORML's website at: http://capwiz.com/norml2/home/.) If you are typing your letter (which is advisable), include a handwritten postscript (e.g., Thanks for giving consideration to this issue.) as well as your home address so that the recipient understands that you are a constituent.
Most importantly, be sure to close your correspondence with a strong statement telling your representative that you will weigh his or her response in the coming election. (Remember, it's just as important to let your elected officials know when you agree with their stance as when you disagree.) A conclusion such as: "Please let me know how you would vote on this issue. Marijuana-law reform is important to me and I will take your position into consideration at the next election" is ideal. Also, if you have previously had a letter to the editor published, be sure to clip it and send it along.
Lastly, do not be discouraged by unfavorable responses. Many politicians remain uneducated or ignorant about marijuana-law reform or mistakenly believe that Americans favor current policies. However, the more that you and other like-minded friends, family and co-workers communicate with your public officials, the sooner they will change their positions. Try to appeal to common ideologies (e.g., opposition to wasteful government spending, concern over adolescent drug use, misuse of valuable law enforcement resources, etc.) and do not hesitate to write follow-up letters. For more information, please visit the "Contact Elected Officials" section of the NORML website at: http://capwiz.com/norml2/home/ .