Messaging Science for Legislators


At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, researchers participating in the Research-to-Policy Collaboration created one-page fact sheets about how the pandemic was affecting various populations and services, then provided ranging policy options. To enhance the reach and intended impact of these fact sheets, we partnered with the authors to distribute their work to legislative officials via email (process described here). These distributions allowed us to test strategies to improve access (opening the email) and engagement (clicking the fact sheet link) with the science-based resources. In one year, we conducted over 75 trials. Here is what we learned. 

1. Cue  Relevance.


Legislators are more likely to engage with information they deem as personally relevant or relevant to their constituents. Directly cue relevance by including the legislator’s name or district name in the subject line (e.g. “Issues facing California families”). Also carefully curate a target audience based on who will be able to use the information

  1. Legislative power: Policymakers are more likely to work on issues they have power over (e.g., sitting on a relevant committee). 

  2. Public mentions: Vocal legislators might be more interested, but that may depend on the topic and whether they already have competing information sources. 

  3. Surprisingly, severity of issue in the state was not often predictive of legislators attending to the issue via email. This might be improved if mentioning state rates more directly.

We have a forthcoming paper on this topic that will be linked here when available.

2. Keep it short. 


Policymakers and staffers receive mountains of emails. We have found that they access and engage more with a short email, even if it means it is missing important information. “Short” means 2 to 3 sentences, taking up no more than 3 lines (not including the “hello” line and the sign-off lines). 

3. Policymakers prefer people.


While being concise is helpful, there may be an exception: personal narratives. Establishing and maintaining relationships is key to being elected and being effective in office. Corresponding with this culture, it is important to communicate authenticity and build rapport by: 

  1. Opening with a kind sentence (“Hope your week is going well”). 

  2. Thank them for their work (“Thank you for your service to California.”). 

  3. Share your own story (“I became interested in this research because I grew up in a town with”). 

  4. Send the email as an individual rather than the organization. Emails with a human sender name are accessed seven times more than emails with an organization sender name!  

4. A science frame is transparent.


Mentioning “science” in the subject line does not appear to hurt or help open rates, but it can ensure that recipients know what to expect if they do open it -- thus increasing their likelihood of engaging with the material. But it could also limit your exposure to new audiences who may not open on the basis of scientific information alone. We have a forthcoming paper on this topic that will be linked here when available. 

5. Just be normal.


Policymakers and staffers are inundated with messages from advocacy and lobbying organizations constantly. They have become averse to the traditional messaging tactics. This means that clickbait-like methods are ineffective (e.g., “Join your colleagues in”; “Surprising policy recommendations for”). Policymakers are savvy to these overt action-promoting tactics and are most likely to open emails that sound like they are written by ordinary people. 

6. Emotions are confusing


Emotional words affect our subsequent actions. Perhaps due to a deeply ingrained social nature, authentic emotional appeals seem to boost access and engagement. However, the degree of this effect, and whether it is in the direction desired is complicated.  

The right emotions at the right levels and in the right context can be engaging, but we are still pinning down what those best practices are. Overt references to emotions may not be as compelling as more subtle, threat-evoking language.  We have a forthcoming paper on this topic that will be linked here when available. 

7. Problems may garner attention but...


Emphasizing the extent of a problem may garner attention because it authentically evokes emotions. However, this problem framing may also debilitate action or careful processing of the information. In comparison, “solutions” framing may evoke less emotion but also not debilitate action. It is unclear which of these frames should be pursued. More work is needed to study methods for shifting problem-framed messages that increase initial attention but do not appear to improve subsequent action and engagement.  

Framing as a problem may look like “X% of children are in poverty, which contributes to a mental illness rate of X%” and framing as a solution may look like “investing in pre-K education improves the negative outcomes associated with low-income families”. 

8. Policymakers vary in their email behavior.


While some state legislators open every email (~20%), and many open no emails (~45%), some only sometimes open (35%). Dissemination teams may benefit the most by targeting strategies for enhancing  engagement among those in the middle. Entirely new tactics are needed for those who never open (e.g., emailing their staffers; scheduling meetings; physical mail).  

 We have a forthcoming paper on this topic that will be linked here when available. 

9. Context matters.


Outside events can dilute any messaging tactic; what is effective for one resource at one point in time may not be effective in a different moment. Similarly, the current relevance or politicization of the issue may be stronger than any messaging tactic. Messaging strategy is not a panacea for engagement - we must be timely, relevant, and personal.

10. Routine evaluation is necessary


Given the importance and unpredictability of context and the fine nuance, ongoing evaluation of messaging tactics is critical. Evaluation capacity should be integrated into dissemination efforts and maintained to properly understand what works.