Many historical leaders have taken action, or were at least educated, through words they read in a letter.
President Abraham Lincoln grew a beard after an 11-year-old girl wrote him, saying his face was too thin and would look better with facial hair. Elvis Presley penned a message to President Richard Nixon indicating he co
uld assist the Bureau of Narcotics and Drugs in any way possible. In a letter to incoming President Bill Clinton, outgoing President George H.W. Bush said, “There would be very tough times, made even more difficult by criticism you may not think is fair.”
Even more important than those documents was the public and media attention that followed.
In today’s world of emails, texts, tweets and snaps, the traditional, conventional letter is still a surprisingly powerful tool – especially when dealing with public officials and government agencies. It is a device too many communications professionals overlook when planning their strategies.
Yes, I am talking about the old-fashioned typed (or even hand-written) message on letterhead, appropriately addressed, signed (perhaps electronically) – and of course, well written.
A letter demonstrates to a public official that his or her constituents are aware of an issue or problem. It is an opportunity for people, non-profits, community organizations and companies to go on the record demanding an action or a response from a public official or agency.
From my experience, this has included a non-profit calling on an investigative agency to review funding that was in risk of being taken away from a worthy cause. Another time, a private developer wanted to engage community members on the benefits of his proposed project. In both cases, the best tool was a simple letter – demonstrating the substance of the argument and showing that the motivated party was willing to put their words on a public record.
A letter can provide historical context or important statistics. It can summarize complex issues, list calls to action and, most importantly, grab the attention of public officials on a matter that is important to them – or at least explain why it should be important to them.
A letter can be most effective when there is no case study, survey or report to promote a cause or call to action. It can aim to motivate an official by calling for a policy change, an investigation or the need for more funding for a special cause. Or, it can be less aggressive and simply used for educational purposes.
Either way, the quaint old-fashioned letter becomes the essential document that spurs action beyond the person or agency that is addressed. It is the tool to engage all media outlets and platforms.
The letter becomes the story you want to tell. It includes phrases that can be turned into quotes for a press release. In fact, the letter can accompany the release just like a well-researched report. The letter itself can be turned into a graphic and posted on a website or social media, along with short messages or quotes. It can be turned into a community mail piece; either repurposed in its standard letter format or into a creative layout. Additionally, it can become the foundation for an op-ed or letter-to-the editor.
Sending a letter between government officials and agencies is also just as effective. When an official feels another office isn’t taking enough action or there’s been a lack of response, outlining the issues in a letter can cultivate a story, bringing transparency to the issue and informing the public.
At Ceisler Media & Issue Advocacy, our clients want to promote a cause or deliver a message that in most cases involves engaging a public official or agency through various media channels - whether it is an article, a TV interview or getting the community to sign a petition through a social media account. This can entail coordinating a press conference, an exclusive interview or the release of a study supplemented with a press release.
But what if these options are not available? What happens when lack of resources or timing constraints present a roadblock to getting your message out?
Just like the song by the Box Tops (or the more preferred version by Joe Cocker) says “I ain’t got no time to take no fast train ... my baby she wrote me a letter.”
The traditional letter is still effective and it should be part of any communications strategy.
Just make sure it is signed, sealed and delivered -- whether through email or even the U.S. Postal Service. And don’t forget the stamp.
Brian Dries is an Associate Director in Ceisler Media's Philadelphia Office.