Writing an Effective Ocean Advocacy Letter

Earlier this year, Andrew issued his Summer Science Outreach Challenge: Write an Op-Ed.  Inspired, I thought I would straight up steal Andrew’s idea and give a few tips on writing an effective advocacy letter, the type of letter you’d send to a government official to ask them to help protect the ocean.

In my conservation career I’ve written hundreds of letters to all levels of government, from agency staff to presidents.  Advocacy letters are one of the more effective tools in the arsenal of conservation tactics.  They are a great way of communicating a message directly to a targeted person (assuming the letter gets read, of course!) and are a great way to kick off a discussion on protecting the ocean between concerned citizens and government officials.  Here are a few tips:

Target your letter to the person who can help.  Before you start writing your letter, you need to decide who you are writing to.  The person you write to should have the power to effect the change you are seeking.  This person might be a president or a governor, or maybe they are a senator or member of parliament.  Maybe they aren’t elected at all, perhaps it is a career bureaucrat who toils in the weeds of government management.  Whoever it is, they need to have the power to make the change you seek.  I don’t recommend writing to organizations or government agencies.  Write to the people that work there.

Envision the outcome you want.  What is the core message you are trying to convey with your letter?  Government officials are bombarded with information from citizens, advocacy groups, political parties, businesses, labor unions, and all other sorts of organizations.  As this information filters up from the staff who opens the mail to the decision maker, it gets added to the cacophony of all the other issues, and ultimately shortened and simplified.  By the time the information reaches its intended target, your message could be in a list of bullet points to summarize all the information the office is receiving. In my professional life this has been messages like “the indigenous community wants the marine protected area” or “recreational fishermen are opposed to opening the protected area to commercial fishermen.”  Your letter ultimately needs to be easily simplified to its core message.  A great way to make sure that happens is to start from that core message and build your letter out from there.

Consider the messenger.  Look, I think you’re amazing.  But before we get too far into this letter writing business, take a second to consider if you are the right person to deliver this message.  Are you a citizen of your country writing to your duly elected official about something you care about?  Yes?  Then of course your voice deserves to be heard!  But is it the best voice?  On this issue?  Consider that we all wear different hats in our lives.  I’m an environmental advocate, but I’m also a person of indigenous heritage with cultural ties to the ocean, an erstwhile scientist, a terrible fisherman, and an avid scuba diver.  I use these different personas in different aspects of my work.   I often consider which version of me is best for delivering a message.  And sometimes I am the wrong messenger.  You should consider that, too.

Keep it short.  Long letters don’t get read.  Period.  The point of your letter is to deliver a message.  This is most impactful when the message is direct, succinct, and to the point.  This can be accomplished in three paragraphs, on one side of a piece of paper.  There are times when you want to provide a ton of information, but there are better tools out there than advocacy letters for delivering that amount of information.  Keep your letter short!

Introduce yourself and why you are important.  Alright, let’s start writing.  In the first paragraph of your letter, you should introduce yourself and explain why the target of the letter should listen to you.  Are you a scientist?  A mother?  A voter living in their district?  Do you possess knowledge that other people do not?  Tailor the description of why you are important to the person you are writing to.  What kind of people influence them?  This will be different for people of different political philosophies.  For example, a person of a certain political stripe may not care that you are a scientist who specializes in the ocean, but they may care that you are a fish crazed outdoor enthusiast.  Make them believe you are the kind of person that cannot be ignored – because you are!!

Give some very broad, basic background information on the issues and relate why it matters to you.  The second paragraph of your letter is your opportunity to explain your issue.  This is the section where you lay out the broad issues.  Don’t fill it with too much jargon and try not to use too many numbers.  Remember the outcome you envisioned when you started writing.  This is what you are trying to convey, not the fact that you know more about this issue than anybody else.  Also try to relate this information to how it directly influences you.  Industry is really good at doing this, and environmental advocates need to get better at it.  Don’t just say that fish surveys show populations are overfished, also say that we need to replenish the ocean so that you can feed your family.

Make an extremely specific ask of the person you are writing.  The third and final paragraph of your letter is the most important.  You’ve explained who you are and why you are important, so now you can’t be ignored.  You’ve given some basic background on the problem, and now you are going to provide a solution.  And this solution needs to be as specific as possible.  Don’t write a letter saying, “I’d like you to help protect the ocean.”  This is your chance to say, “I want you to vote yes or no on this specific bill,” or “I want you to use your executive authority to put this specific policy in place.”

Edit what you just wrote.  Make it shorter.  Great.  You just finished your letter.  It’s too long.  You should be able to summarize your entire letter in one sentence.  Again, there’s a very good chance the target of your letter will never read your letter, but will get a summary from a staffer.  You want that summary to say something like, “We got a letter from a marine biologist who wants us to listen to the science and vote against the bill.”

Finally, ensure delivery of your letter.  Depending on who you are writing, just dropping your letter in the mail or sending a .pdf via email doesn’t ensure that it will be received and read – even if you send it certified mail.  This varies depending on who you are writing, of course.  On the extreme end of the spectrum, the White House receives hundreds of thousands of letters every month (I looked that fact up).  Ten of them would reach President Obama each day (not sure about the new guy).  Consider that there are other ways to deliver your letter, too.  You can deliver it in person by setting up a meeting and bringing it with you.  You can also ask someone to deliver it for you, perhaps a person or an organization that has a connection to the intended target.  You could even get creative by buying advertising in a newspaper to print your letter, or tweeting it to its target.  Sometimes it helps to send carbon copies of the letter to other recipients, too.  Your message will only be heard if it gets delivered.

Did this help?  I’ve been working in environmental advocacy for about 15 years and have had the good fortune to work in about two dozen countries.  I’ve picked up a few fun ideas along the way.  Let me know if this kind of writing interests you, or if you want me to write about specific environmental advocacy tactics, and I’ll do more of it.

Follow me!  This is only my second post here on Southern Fried Science, and I hope to have a few more before the year is out.  This blogger thing isn’t new to me — I’ve been writing at The Saipan Blog for almost 14 years.  I’m just a really lazy blogger.  I’m more active on Twitter, where I hope you’ll give me a follow.