Third Quarter 1998
Keeping America Safe from Democracy
by Sheldon Rampton and John Stauber
During the 1998 elections, a frightening new trend in the public relations industry's efforts to manipulate democracy has come to fruition. Throughout the United States, corporations and other vested interests have dumped hundreds of millions of dollars of "soft money" into hard-hitting TV advertisements attacking one candidate or praising another.
What makes these soft money ads different from the political propaganda in past elections is that there are no financial limits, no reporting requirements, and business can spend secretly and directly to determine an election's outcome. Journalists and the public often have no way of knowing which wealthy interests are backing these sophisticated political ads, because they hide behind cleverly invented names such as "Citizens for Reform," "Citizens for the Republic Education Fund" and "Coalition for Our Children's Future."
These anonymous groups are the latest incarnation of the PR industry's genius at creating phony "grassroots" political movements. Unfortunately, court rulings have exempted these groups from the reporting requirements that apply to candidates themselves and to political action committees (PACs).
Federal judges have ruled that "issue advocacy advertising campaigns" which blast or praise a candidate can be broadcast during election races, provided that the TV spots do not specifically advocate voting for or against a particular candidate. This giant loophole allows corporations a secretive way to flood the TV market with hundreds of millions of dollars of advertising clearly designed to influence the outcome of elections.
Look for this powerful new type of "astroturf organizing" to grow in future elections as scores of opportunistic PR firms promote this new business avenue among their corporate clients. More and more wealthy interests will invent civic-sounding names for front groups. These names, pasted on the bottom of TV ads, create the illusion that some genuine citizen-based movement is behind the campaign, when in reality the "citizen coalition" is just a small number of wealthy clients and corporations.
Ironically, the court rulings have been based on defending the constitutional rights of citizens to speak out on important issues during electoral campaigns. In the real world, however, the effect has been to further disenfranchise citizens by providing yet another way for vested interests to corrupt the electoral process.
From Grassroots to Gray Suits
In the 1960s, grassroots organizing was part and parcel of what came to be known as the "New Left," as civil rights and peace activists, feminists and environmentalists pioneered new techniques for mobilizing everyday citizens to confront corporate and government powers-that-be.
Saul Alinsky, a Chicago community organizer, emerged as one of the leading grassroots strategists of the period. Inspired more by Thomas Paine than Karl Marx, Alinsky saw politics as a struggle between "Haves" and "Have-Nots." The "Haves" are people with money who therefore are able to buy political power. The "Have-Nots," however, have another potential source of power: strength in numbers at the grassroots, based on the fact that the "Haves" are usually a tiny minority. By mobilizing "Have-Nots" to act collectively and in unison, Alinsky was able to win victories for poor people.
Today the public relations industry, not concerned citizens, organizes the biggest and most effective "grassroots citizen campaigns" that lobby Washington, and state and local governments. Unlike Alinsky's campaigns, today's industry-generated movements are controlled by the "Haves."
"The heirs of Saul Alinsky can be on both sides of the equation," say PR consultants Edward Grefe and Martin Linsky, who have chronicled the rise of what they call a "new breed of guerrilla warriors" in their 1995 book, The New Corporate Activism. "The essence of this new way," they argue, "is to marry 1990s communication and information technology with 1960s grassroots organizing techniques."
Robots Talking to Other Robots
The high-tech strategies of corporate grassroots, touted in promotional brochures and company how-to guides, sound more like computer geek-talk than the "power to the people" rhetoric of the 1960s. RTCdirect, a grassroots PR firm located in Washington's notorious K Street lobbyist corridor, boasts of capabilities including "public opinion surveys, cluster analysis, . . . laser-personalized direct mail, inbound/outbound telemarketing, broadcast fax and email, Web site creation, focus groups . . . message creation, printing, mailhousing, shipping and mailing, operating telephone banks, capturing the response data. . . . We can use interactive and voice-recognition technologies that reduce or eliminate the need for live operators to minimize costs while providing maximum access."
"The database, the cornerstone of today's marketing communications, is also the heart of grassroots communications," explains corporate grassroots consultant Richard Stone. "It enables users to know their customers. Direct marketers know what, where, how often, how much and why people buy, as well as their income level, number of children, home ownership status, car preferences and a host of other individualized demographic and psychographic characteristics. . . . Equally detailed information on attitudes towards issues and political figures can be pulled up by grassroots practitioners."
"Psychographics" refers to a technique for using statistical data to make educated guesses about people's opinions, based on other facts that are already known. It is used in tandem with "merge-purge," a technique for combining information about a single individual from multiple databases.
"If phone numbers are not included, they can easily be added," Stone says. "You can also run your list against FEC contributions data and state voter files to determine, for example, which business owners are making sizeable political contributions. . . . You might even run the list against cluster-based geodemographic targeting data."
Using these techniques, a grassroots PR firm can generate a list of likely supporters overnight for its client's cause. The trick then is to transform these hypothetical supporters into "activists" who will actually phone or write to exert constitutent pressure on a targeted government official. This transformation is accomplished through standard telemarketing, combined with a technique known as "patch-through."
is to marry 1990s
communication and information
technology with 1960s
grassroots organizing techniques."
-- Edward Grefe and Martin Linsky
Using phone banks, calls are made to each name on the list. After a brief conversation to determine whether the constituent agrees with the pitch, the telemarketer offers to connect him or her immediately with the targeted official. A push of the button later, the citizen is electronically "patched through" to his or her elected official, and the telemarketer is on to the next call. This ensures that the newly motivated activist actually makes good on the commitment to call--and does so while the lobbyist's arguments are fresh in mind. Lobbyists can even silently monitor the conversation, if they stay on the three-way call.
In addition to phone calls, telemarketers may also offer to send letters, telegrams or faxes using the activist's name. The sheer quantity of mail generated through grassroots campaigns is staggering. A single member of Congress receives 92,000 pieces of mail per year.
In some cases, astroturf campaigns can backfire. "Patch-through phone calls are no longer cutting-edge technology. . . . Their overuse may annoy some lawmakers," says Brenda O'Connor, director of public affairs for the American Insurance Association. Increasingly, PR firms are turning to more personalized, intensive methods of orchestrating political activism for their corporate clients.
"Key contacts" are employees who have been trained and cultivated to lead the company's political campaign. They are in charge both of mobilizing other employees and of developing a close relationship with their elected officials. Typically, a employee's duties as a political activist are literally written into his or her job description, and successful key contacts are rewarded with perks including flexible working hours, bonus pay, and opportunities for promotion.
"These people have independent and direct access to policymakers and can usually reach them on short notice," explains Sally Patterson of the Winner/Wagner & Francis PR firm, whose clients include the Edison Electric Institute, Exxon and the National Association of Counties. "With key contacts, a company can identify, recruit, and activate a small number of influential citizens and opinion leaders to contact public officials through personal letters, phone calls, or visits. They are most effective at critical moments in a public policy campaign."
For corporate grassroots pros, the term "mobilizing the family" means bringing out a company's people in mass--its employees, shareholders and retirees. "These constituencies add numbers to the messages delivered by the key contacts, bringing the force of the company's voting constituency to a legislator," Patterson says.
Employees are the easiest to mobilize, Patterson says, because they are "instantly available at the worksite . . . they are the first resource when volume response is part of a grassroots need."
Retirees are also targeted. "As senior citizens," Patterson explains, they "have instant credibility with legislators. They have time to follow the issues, they take time to write to their legislators, and they vote in greater numbers than most other age groups. But companies may need to sort through their retiree lists--retirees who have been affected by downsizing or restructuring may not automatically support the company."
The Buddy System
Grasstops organizing is an updated version of the "good old boys network" that used to rule back in the days when "Congress was dominated by a handful of powerful men who wrote and passed virtually all the legislation," as PR executive Edward Gabriel recalled in a 1992 article for the Public Relations Quarterly. In those days, Gabriel said, "If you wanted a change in the tax code, for example, you really needed only to persuade one person--Wilbur Mills, chairman of the Ways and Means Committee. You did not have to worry about the other two dozen committee members."
"You could make a deal in the government," recalls Thomas J. Donohue, president of the powerful U.S. Chamber of Commerce. "We had a drink in the middle of the day, . . . and then they'd all cuss and swear and tell stories and then, the deal gets fixed."
Today, every member of Congress gets targeted for similar buddy-to-buddy attention. Although "grassroots" mobilizations make a good show, Donahue believes that a single phone call from an individual close to the targeted politician "is better than 500 people knocking on the door."
from people unaware
of the fact that something
has been sent in their name,
and saying, 'In fact,
I don't feel that way.' "
--North Dakota Senator Byron Dorgan
A "grasstops" contact may be a fellow politico--a mayor, a local union president, the head of a civic association, or a trusted election volunteer. It may also simply be someone the politician knows personally--a former classmate, family member or close friend.
"Grasstops contacts are independent voices with a standing in the community and their own points of access to policymakers," Patterson said. "The key concern here is to ensure that their interests on a particular issue are consistent with the company's."
The value of these contacts, according to Brian Lunde of Decision Management, Inc., a Virginia-based PR firm, is that they create "the impression that more than just the vested interests are in favor of your position. Even close advisors and friends are supportive."
Grasstops contacts can be cultivated through a variety of techniques. In some cases, PR firms simply hire them for a fee. In other cases, careful recruitment and persuasion is necessary. For this reason, companies like Bonner & Associates charge more money for generating grasstops contacts than they charge for mere grassroots--up to $500 for each letter or call generated, and up to $10,000 for face-to-face, personal visits.
Is it Real, or Is It Astroturf?
Jack Bonner, the president of Bonner & Associates, argues that his big-business version of grassroots organizing is every bit as legitimate as the traditional variety. "Have we come to a point in our democracy where it's legitimate for environmentalists to take their message to the people but not for industry to do the same?" he asks.
Others disagree, arguing that the sheer economic power of corporations gives them an unfair advantage which subverts rather than enhances democracy. "If you combine the institutions with unlimited resources with those that have new technologies, it could give new meaning to the phrase 'reach out and touch someone,' " says Fred Wertheimer, president of the government reform group, Common Cause.
Grassroots PR has also been criticized for deceptive practices in a number of cases where companies have used people's names without their authorization. In 1994, for example, an aide to Alabama Democratic Senator Howell Heflin was surprised when a letter signed with his own name arrived in Hefflin's office strongly objecting to President Clinton's health care plan.
The aide, Steve Raby, had called the Healthcare Leadership Council, a Bonner-affiliated front group a week earlier, but had not given permission to send any such letter. "I said, 'I disagree with your message,'" he recalled telling the operator.
Bonner shrugged off the incident, saying, "Mistakes happen."
But other legislators have also experienced instances of unauthorized letters purporting to come from their constituents. According to Byron Dorgan, a Democratic Senator from North Dakota, his office has noticed discrepancies when his office writes back to constituents acknowledging their letters. "We've had letters back from people unaware of the fact that something has been sent in their name, and saying 'In fact, I don't feel that way,'" Dorgan said.
In July 1995, an astroturf campaign by the Beckel Cowan PR firm became the subject of a more serious scandal when it was discovered that as many as half of its messages to Congress were unauthorized. Beckel Cowan hired a subcontractor, NTS Marketing, to generate mailgrams against legislation which was opposed by long-distance phone companies.
Suspicious members of Congress began to check the authenticity of signatures on the telegrams they received. They got some intriguing answers: Some signers were dead; some no longer lived at the addresses listed; some were traveling abroad; and a great many said they had never been called or asked to sign.
Beckel Cowan hastily apologized, claiming that NTS Marketing had "severely violated" its trust. Aside from the embarrassment, however, it suffered no further consequences. The U.S. Attorney's office looked into the matter briefly but dropped it because there are no laws that prohibit sending fraudulent communications to Congress.
Mistakes happen, of course, but the type of mistakes that occur with "astroturf PR" are unheard-of in genuine grassroots campaigns. In genuine grassroots campaigns, "activists" act on their own behalf. They are not simply camouflage for other interests.
Ronald Shaiko, a professor of government at American Univesity who has written about the lobbying process, believes businesses should be expected, at a minimum, to publicly disclose their role in grassroots lobbying efforts. "If a corporation or any organized interest goes beyond its organizational infrastructure and membership to mobilize grass-roots support or opposition in the policymaking process, I want to know about it," he states. "I would like to know what firm or firms were hired, how much they were paid, the duration of their contracts and the method of mobilization (e.g., direct mail, media campaign, telephone patch-throughs, Internet campaigns). I do not believe that the privacy of a single individual would be violated by such a disclosure."
Jack Bonner, predictably, disagrees: "The problem with disclosure is, will it have a chilling effect on people getting involved? Grassroots lobbying is good. The more people who participate the better."