Analysis: Lobbying and mass emails - effective or irritating?

The Conservative MP Sir Peter Bottomley caused a furore with his scathing criticism of mass emails to parliamentarians about the lobbying bill. Sam Burne James finds his concern is shared to some extent by other MPs and campaigners

Westminster (Illustration: James Fryer)
Westminster (Illustration: James Fryer)

Stupid. Sir Peter Bottomley's provocative description of the 38 Degrees email campaign against the lobbying bill at last month's All-Party Parliamentary Group on Civil Society and Volunteering prompted a substantial backlash on ThirdSector.co.uk, a lot of it in much more colourful language than his.

But the Conservative MP for Worthing West remains unapologetic and is equally critical of mass email initiatives by other campaign groups and charities. He says they are counter-productive because they irritate MPs and disrupt their work: "They cause harm, not good. It's the opposite of wise, and that's why I thought stupid was an appropriate word.

"The last thing that helps charities or supporters of charities is a flood of emails from people asking MPs to write individual letters to ministers. It would eventually mean they'd have to hire extra staff at public expense, and the benefit would not be noticeable." His particular concern is that too many emails might mean that MPs miss important messages from constituents with serious, pressing problems.

Mass email campaigns have become an increasingly easy way for people to register their views with politicians. You put your name, email address and postcode into a box on the charity or campaigning organisation's website, and up comes a standard email. It is often possible to modify it, and many websites make the point that doing so is preferable.

Missing the mark

While many would argue this gives people a voice they might not otherwise have, some parliamentarians, charity campaigners and communications experts agree that the resulting email deluge often misses the mark. At the same time, however, they distance themselves from Bottomley and his confrontational language.

"I couldn't disagree more with what Sir Peter Bottomley said," says Stephen Doughty, the Labour MP for Cardiff South and Penarth, and previously a campaigner for charities including Oxfam and World Vision. "Ultimately, each one of those emails is a constituent and they need to be treated in the same way as any other letter or communication."

But he also he admits there are concerns and that he "recently had a series of discussions with campaigning charities alongside other MPs on practical ways to improve the impact of and response to e-campaigning."

Andrew George, the Liberal Democrat MP for St Ives in Cornwall, shares Bottomley's concern about the pressure emails can put on MPs' time.

"If MPs provided meticulous, personalised responses to every communication they received, they would achieve nothing else nor ever have time to," he says.

That said, he does not have sympathy for how Bottomley expressed himself. "If any MP is labouring under the delusion that their committed band of ardent detractors will ever have any sympathy for their plight of responding to the thousands of communications they receive each week, then they have learnt nothing from their time doing the job," he says.

In the Lords, Labour's Baroness Jill Pitkeathley, the co-chair of the APPG, where Bottomley made his remarks, says: "I can see that some MPs and peers get irritated. I don't. But when charities are campaigning on specific issues, they ought not to think blanket emails to every MP or peer will do the trick. Some charities need to be more selective."

Baroness Rosalind Howells, another Labour peer, says: "The sad thing about this is that if I receive a mass email I might think I don't need to talk on this subject because somebody else will." Howells says she does not use email and has her assistant print emails out for her to read at her leisure.

Some charities have stopped using standardised messages. "Times have changed," says the website of Carers UK, for example. "The rise of email means that MPs and ministers have been deluged with such standardised letters, to the point that they often get ignored. It will take a bit longer, but writing your own letter will be so much more effective than any standard letter we can give you."

'Lazy and meaningless'

John Lehal, managing director of Insight Public Affairs, says he would not advise clients to use mass email campaigns, with the possible exception of times when there are free votes in the House of Commons and MPs are under less pressure to follow party lines. "I think mass email campaigns are lazy and meaningless," he says. "All people have done is clicked a button and dropped it into an inbox - it hardly shows a constituent is interested."

Tom Levitt (right), a charity consultant and Labour MP for High Peak between 1997 and 2010, says that he and colleagues used quite regularly to get emails starting "Dear (insert the name of your MP here)". "If they hadn't bothered reading them, why should I?" he says.

"In my 13 years as an MP, the issue that generated the most sincere campaign was rural post offices - because people were talking about their direct experiences; very often we got individual letters about individual experiences. If every email has something even slightly different in it, that improves the impact."

Brian Lamb, a consultant, Third Sector columnist and chair of the National Council for Voluntary Organisations' campaign effectiveness advisory board, says the controversy is not new. "Before email campaigning, everyone did postcard campaigns," he says. "The thinking became that you had to be very careful before you sent any kind of pro forma communication, because it was so obvious it was pro forma; it felt manufactured.

"There have got to be other ways. You have to show there is a genuine concern, and it has to be part of a broader, integrated and targeted campaign. Don't dismiss Bottomley as a lone voice - there are a number of people who feel they are being engaged in the wrong way."

38 Degrees points out its campaigns involve more than just emails. But that is not the key point, says campaigns manager Becky Jarvis: "Our members believe that telling MPs what we think is what living in a democracy is all about. It's not only for certain sorts of people; it's for all of us."

How to deal with the inbox avalanche

Marc Powell, managing director of the training provider Emailogic, points out that email has been around for more than 10 years now. "If Peter Bottomley is complaining, then he needs to get with it," he says. "Email is not going to go away and is only going to get used more. If someone can't deal with their inbox, they are not equipped with the skills and attributes needed to deal with the modern age."

He says there are two aspects to getting on top of a bulging inbox: controlling your personal behaviour and learning how to use the technology. Checking email can become addictive, he says, so you have to be disciplined. Many people check their email as soon as they start work, but he recommends writing a 'to-do' list for the day ahead, deciding how dealing with emails fits into it, instead of getting sidetracked immediately by your inbox.

He also recommends learning how to make your email work for you. Setting up folders in which to group emails can give order to a cluttered inbox. There are lots of tools that can help to identify messages by type - sort the title, sender or subject and group them together - which can manage emails quickly.

In Outlook these include Rules, which allows you to identify certain messages automatically and move them to a designated folder - a campaign with the same title or a set of words, for example. Once grouped, these messages can be dealt with in one go. Quick Steps allows you to file messages rapidly yourself by highlighting and clicking on them rather than dragging them into sub-folders with a mouse, which can take more time.

"If you're disciplined, you should have a 'zero inbox' free of emails from previous days," says Powell.

What Third Sector readers said

Some extracts from the 160 readers' comments below the story about Sir Peter Bottomley saying the mass emailing of MPs was "stupid"

'It's absolutely amazing that this MP actually said this out loud'

'MPs need to realise that charities and campaigning organisations are conduits between people and the political process'

'My MP, Julian Brazier, says he will not engage by email. Instead, I get a letter on thick, headed notepaper, sent first class'

'My MP, Andrew George, reads and responds to my emails. He admits he's a Lib Dem rebel and supports 38 Degrees wholeheartedly'

'Spamming MPs won't work. We need to find a smarter way to get their attention, but just abusing them isn't it'

'An email, whether sent via 38 Degrees or any other lobbying group, is nonetheless an email from a concerned constituent'.

Read the full article and all of the comments here.

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