E-mail has long been the bane of more than a few legislative correspondents on Capitol Hill, those low-level staffers whose job it is to read and respond to incoming mail from constituents and other people looking to influence members of Congress on legislation or public policy issues.
In the vain hope of holding back the flood of e-mails to their Web sites - the House of Representatives got close to 100 million communications via Internet in 2004, according to a new Congressional Management Foundation study - members of Congress in recent years have been testing various types of spam filters to block automated messaging campaigns.
"It's not that members of Congress don't want to respond to everyone; they'd send e-mail to every single person in the [US] if they could," says David All, founder of the David All Group and a former Congressional communications director. "The problem is they have to manage very limited resources for responding."
But while face-to-face meetings are always best for grabbing legislators' attention, e-mail - though frustrating to staffers - does have an impact, public affairs experts say, particularly when advocacy groups persuade individuals to compose personalized messages, as opposed to sending form letters.
While advocacy groups should always offer the one-click "write your congressperson" option using a rotating selection of form letters, Jeff Mascott, MD of public affairs firm Adfero Group and designer of the original http://www.gop.gov Web site, says, "A smart campaign, to have more impact, should provide instructions on how an activist can write the e-mail in their own words."
Mascott explains that e-mail outreach adds needed heft to effective lobbying campaigns, at the very least because offices track the number of e-mails and letters received on every issue. In addition, Shonali Burke, senior director of media and communications for the ASPCA, notes that advocacy groups are more likely to be taken seriously when they are selective regarding the issues about which they choose to contact members of Congress.
Correspondences to Congressional offices are often read and answered by the most junior staffers
Congressional offices view e-mail as a nuisance, yet still use it to track how constituents view issues
Personalized e-mails are given more weight by staff than "form" e-mails