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Personalized messages are more likely to get a response from politicians, new research finds

Postdoc Seth Wynes says pressure from voters on climate change can affect how an MP communicates with the public
September 24, 2021
Seth Wynes wears dark jacket and stands in a forested area
Seth Wynes, postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Geography, Planning and Environment

Complaints about politicians’ lack of fundamental connection to their constituents is a common complaint: elected representatives are not hearing, or caring, about voter concerns, especially around the calls for urgent action to deal with the worsening climate crisis.

But does that assumption hold true when put to the test? In a recent paper published in the journal Climatic Change, lead author Seth Wynes, a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Geography, Planning and Environment, writes that politicians do in fact respond to constituent outreach – but not all kinds. Wynes and his colleagues found that MPs will be more responsive if they perceive that the letter-writer is making the effort to write a personalized note. If they feel that that they are just another recipient on an impersonal mailing list, they will be less likely to respond.

Seth Wynes explains his research below.

Many voters, including in Canada, are frustrated at the pace of robust climate change policy implementation, and massive marches, online campaigns and even elections don't always produce substantial results. Can you explain how your study tests the political efficacy of online political participation?

In partnership with a Canadian organization (Evidence for Democracy) everyday citizens sent emails to their Members of Parliament (MPs) asking them to post a pro-climate message to Twitter. Although this is a small thing to ask, because Twitter is public, we can easily measure how responsive elected officials are to their constituents. If MPs post the pro-climate message, then we know for sure that they read their emails and care enough to show it.

How did the MPs respond overall? Were they open to responding to emails and the messaging? 

Only one MP actually tweeted out the requested text. That does mean that even generic, campaign emails are at least a little effective, but it also puts a ceiling on just how much impact we can expect from these low-effort types of communication. There was also some statistical evidence that MPs might have posted more pro-climate tweets but chose to use their own wording instead of the suggested text.

What did you learn about how political actors respond to direct emails compared to phone calls to constituency offices or other kinds of online campaigns? And what did you learn about political representatives in particular?

Our interviews with staffers showed that MP offices tend to give more attention to personalized, hand-written messages or phone calls. Part of this is because it takes less effort for constituency offices to respond to a generic email (you make one response and copy and paste it to everyone who sent the email). But analog communications also signal more effort from constituents, so they are taken more seriously.

If you want your issue to stand out so that an MP actually hears about it, then a good recipe is to have a high volume of high-effort contact, ideally coinciding with some media attention. So for climate-concerned citizens, getting some friends together to contact an MP right around a climate strike would be a great idea.

Read the cited paper: Can citizen pressure influence politicians’ communication about climate change? Results from a field experiment

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