According to a recent report in the Los Angeles Times, letters written by two dead people landed on the desk of Utah attorney general Mark Shurtleff earlier this year, imploring him to go easy on the Redmond-based monopolist. The letters were part of an orchestrated campaign conducted by Americans for Technology Leadership, which describes itself as “a broad-based coalition of technology professionals, consumers and organizations dedicated to limiting government regulation of technology.” According to the group’s website, its members include retailers such as CompUSA and Staples, citizens groups financed by Microsoft, and Microsoft itself.
In some respects, the group’s astroturf campaign was not unusual—many companies (and a good number of activist groups) maintain lists of supporters, and churn out computer generated letters for them to sign and mail to opinion leaders. Individuals who expressed support for Microsoft’s position were sent letters to sign, along with hand-stamped, pre-addressed envelopes to their state attorney general, their member of Congress, or in some cases to President Bush. But what made the ATL effort unusual was the extent to which the organization went to personalize the correspondence. Letters were sent on personalized stationery, using different wording, and different typefaces.
Only a careful analysis of the letters by state attorneys general revealed that key phrases were identical from one letter to the next. Four letters to Iowa attorney general contained the same sentence: “Strong competition and innovation have been the twin hallmarks of the technology industry.” Three others insisted, “If the future is going to be as successful as the recent past, the technology sector mist remain free from excess regulation.”
The LA Times story also details the efforts of another pro-Microsoft group, Citizens Against Government Waste, which apparently conducted a more conventional letter writing campaign. Minnesota attorney general Mike Hatch says he received 300 letters from CAGW supporters, all identical except for the signature. He described that campaign as “sleazy,” but in reality it’s a lot less objectionable than the ATL effort.
There is probably no area of public relations practice where the ethical lines are as blurry as they are in the “grassroots” business, and the lines have been getting even blurrier as new technology expands the possibilities for those who claim to be able generate public support—or the illusion of public support—on controversial public policy issues.
In the beginning, most of these campaigns were labor intensive. Highly specialized grassroots companies would maintain lists of individuals interested in specific issues, contact them by telephone when their action was needed, and urge them to contact their congressman, providing either a telephone number or an address, or perhaps a form letter to sign. That approach had obvious limitations. It was inefficient, requiring dozens, even hundreds of telephone calls to generate a single contact between a citizen and his or her congressman, and if it employed a form letter it soon became apparent to the recipient that the effort was orchestrated rather than spontaneous.
As Stanford University business professor David Baron points out, “The more orchestrated [a campaign] gets, the less influence it has. Handwritten letters that are written by human beings can make a difference.”
In other words, the quality of contacts is as important as the quantity. If letter writers had simply signed their names to a mass mailing produced by a corporation or a front group working on behalf of a corporation, there was no way of knowing how sincere their interest in the issue was. If, on the other hand, they sat down and composed their own letters, it was an indication that they had taken a genuine interest, that they had thought the issue through. Congressional aides quickly became adept at telling the difference between the former approach—which they labeled astroturf—and the latter, which indicates genuine grassroots support.
And so companies with little genuine grassroots support have responded by attempting to make their astroturf look as much like real grass as possible. And technology has advanced to the point that it is possible to generate hundreds of different letters, each containing slightly different language, on different paper, with different fonts, to create the illusion that each individual respondent has written his or her own letter, explaining his or her carefully reasoned arguments. (If they ever get truly sophisticated, companies will start including typos and incoherent thoughts in their letters.)
In a response to the LA Times article, CAGW president Thomas Schatz explains how his group works. “We encourage citizens to forward these letters by e-mail to their representatives in government if they wish. Another technique is to send supporters hardcopy letters for them to sign and forward, again, if they wish. Contrary to the article’s implication, there is nothing insidious or unusual about such practice. This type of grassroots campaign is not only standard in politics but quintessentially American—organizing public participation in the political process as an expression of freedom of speech.
“These letters reflect real concerns that thousands of our members have with the government’s action in the Microsoft case.”
Schatz is right. There is nothing wrong with urging individuals to express their views, or with helping them express those views. Nor is there anything wrong with the recipient of such correspondence questioning the depth of a constituent’s commitment to an issue if he or she simply signs a form letter rather than composing his own correspondence.
But the ATL’s campaign crosses an ethical line. It is clearly intended to be deceptive. It may not deceive the recipient about a constituent’s true feelings—no doubt the people who signed these letters genuinely believe Microsoft is being unjustly persecuted—but it does deceive them about the extent of their commitment on the issue. And that’s important—if it wasn’t, companies like Microsoft would not be going to such lengths of mendacity.
The other point that needs to be made is that ATL’s insistence on hiding the sources of its funding—it admits that Microsoft gives some money, but won’t say how much—is as reprehensible as its deceptive lobbying practices. Groups that won’t come clean about their finances—and this includes environmental and other activist groups that receive support from trial lawyers and others—are not be trusted, not by the media and not by legislators and regulators who receive their correspondence. Until ATL is prepared to prove otherwise, it would be sensible for the targets of its efforts to assume that it gets 100 percent of its backing from the company it is trying to protect.