Politicians Know the Difference Between Grassroots, Astroturf (1993)
Charting the future of public relations
Holmes Report

Politicians Know the Difference Between Grassroots, Astroturf (1993)

Changes in technology have had a remarkable impact on the ability of firms to generate "grassroots" response.

Paul Holmes


When President Clinton arrived in Washington just four months ago, his harsh campaign rhetoric about the special inter­ests who were distorting the political process still ringing in the city's ears, it looked as though the days of access and influence-peddling might this time truly be numbered. Adjustments would have to be made, new ways found of bringing pressure to bear on Congress.

Actually, there was nothing new about "grassroots lobbying," the relatively simple—some might say obvious—concept that the most effective way to bring pressure to bear on a particular Congressman might be by supplementing one's PAC contributions and personal presence by an orchestrated effort to indicate to him that the people he represents actually give a damn about the issue in question.

It began to look increasingly important, however, when it became apparent that both the Clinton and Perot presidential campaigns had brought people at the grass roots level back into the political process, and that the President and the media were going to be quick to attack any activity that looked like the begging of special favors for narrow interests.

"Companies that had traditionally relied on lobbying, or felt they could depend on President Bush to veto any anti-business legis­lation, suddenly need­ed to find a new way to exert influence," says the president of one public affairs firm. "Even though the President is severely weakened right now, there's still a feeling that a new approach is needed, one that emphasizes not narrow corporate interests but broad public interests."

Changes in technology have had a remarkable impact on the ability of firms to generate "grassroots" response. Bonner & Associates, which specializes in generating bulk mailings to Congressmen, has a $1 million-plus computer operation with extensive databases of individuals in every state interested in specific issues, and six telephone rooms where 300 lines are manned by the company's operators.

Bonner charges by results, not for any quality of thinking that may go into the strategy, billing clients $350 to $500 for each letter or call from a "community leader," and a fraction of that rate for letters and calls from less notable citizens. The fact that Bonner charges "by the pound" in this way is derided by many competitors, who believe that most Congressmen can spot this kind of communications campaign's lack of spontaneity a mile off.

The firm provides talking points on the issues to the people it lines-up, and som­times even scripts telephone calls and let­ters. Mailings that obviously all come from the same basic script are getting easier and easier to spot, however, and many Congressional staffers complain that when they engage callers prompted by such grass roots efforts in conversation they often find a complete lack of understanding of the issue at hand.

Many lawmakers profess to having developed an immuni­ty to mass mailings. Senator Henry Waxman (D-Cal.) is typical: "When some of these grass-roots campaigns got started they were effective because they were new," he says. "I think the effectiveness has worn off. Members and their staff get their letters and know they're ginned up."

Jim McAvoy, head of the recently-formed grass roots division of Burson-Marsteller, agrees. "When the first postcard arrives saying `Please oppose the BTU tax because it would cost me my job' it looks genuine enough," he says. "By the time you've seen 1,000 of them on the same day its pretty apparent they are not spontaneous."

McAvoy says there are some offices on the Hill that no longer reply to either post­cards or to names on petitions, because they are so easy to generate. He recalls dur­ing his time as a Congressional staffer issu­ing responses to every name on a petition presented by a trade association, but says today such names would likely be ignored.

Another criticism of many grass roots efforts is that they are focused on the short-term. Says one agency executive: "What happens is you have a database of a few thousand people who are basically ideologues who will call in to support business and industry on any issue. If you called them up and said business should have the right to burn children to produce energy they'd write a letter supporting you. And you go to the same people on issue after issue, and people on the Hill are hip to that."

Another tactic that has drawn derision from public affairs professionals, was applied by the conservative Citizens for a Sound Economy, which was dedicated to fighting Detroit's push for steeper tariffs on foreign minivans. It boasted a coalition that included the Boy Scouts of America, the March of Dimes, the American Heart Association and the Arthritis Foundation.

The only problem was the way the group recruited such a prestigious list. When it found someone in a local chapter of any of the organizations it contacted who agreed with its position—that higher tariffs would hurt consumers—it asked that individual to write a letter on the organization's letter­head, and then claimed that the organiza­tion as a whole was part of its coalition.

"If you want credibility on an issue, you need to find people who are genuinely interested in that issue, and who under­stand it and can talk about it intelligently," says the agency exec. "But that takes time. It's a long-term process. That's not some­thing where somebody comes to you on Thursday and you have 10,000 letters in the mail on Monday. Unfortunately, as long as that option exists, companies will see it as a short-cut and they won't invest in the long-term constituency building pro­grams that pay off down the line."

Jim McAvoy says the Association of American Railroads is an example of an organization that is using grass roots tech­niques as part of a long-term strategy. For several years it has been building relation ships in support of changes in the workers' compensation system for railroad employ­ees, which it claims is too burdensome.

"More and more we are moving from a bucket-shop approach to a more genuine grass roots effort that identifies key mem­bers, and a few key individuals who are likely to have an influence on them for a particular issue," he says. "More and more we operate like a political campaign, going into a particular state or district and using the tools a political campaign would use to generate interest and support for an issue."

One principle that seems to apply is that the stranger the bedfellows, the stronger the case. If disparate organizations that are normally antagonistic, can be brought together over an issue, their credibility is likely to be enhanced. Legal Times recently identified four forces combining to make unexpected coalitions more powerful:

  • decision-making power is increasingly dispersed, so that specific policy pressure points have become more difficult to iden­tify, and lobbying efforts require a broad­based approach: often too broad for one single-issue group; 
  • as the number of advocacy groups has increased, it is more and more difficult to propel an issue onto the screen; 
  • tight fiscal constraints hinder the prospects for success, requiring groups to forge consensus across a wide spectrum of interests and work together to carve up a shrinking economic pie; and 
  • President Clinton's own consensus­ building approach puts a premium on con­stituencies that approach policymakers with a solid alliance of interests.

Others say that while the power of mass letter writing campaigns is on the wane—that they may even be counterproductive, alienating staffers who have more impor­tant things to do—carefully targeted grass roots efforts are gaining in importance. That's the approach adopted by Ketchum Public Relations, for example, working for pharmaceutical companies opposed to the President's plan for universal purchasing of vaccines for children.

"The people we have found to be the most powerful, the most influential, on this issue are pediatricians," says Ketchum's Lorraine Thelian. "While their trade asso­ciation supports the Clinton initiative, there are many individual pediatricians who do not. They believe, as does our client, that the real issue is not universal purchase, but education: finding ways of persuading more parents to get their children vaccinated.

Thelian says identifying those pediatri­cians who support that position, making sure they understand the issue, and helping them communicate with lawmakers has been the agency’s most important task in fighting the plan.

Steve Rabin, head of the Washington office of Porter Novelli believes the ideal grassroots campaign may actually target a considerably smaller group of influentials.

"I think there is probably an elite out there on every issue," he says. "They are people who have studied the issue, who understand it probably better than anyone on the Hill. They may be inside the belt­way or outside the beltway. They may be academics or researchers or consumer activists or Congressional staffers or even reporters. There may be 100 or so of them on any given issue, but it's going to be 100 different people on every issue."

The challenge for public relations peo­ple, Rabin says, will be identifying those 100 people on each issue, figuring out their positions, and then helping those who share a client's interest communicate as effectively as possible with the target audi­ence, which may be the media, the whole Congress, a committee or perhaps just one Congressman.

Mass grass roots campaigns, Rabin says, will continue because companies feel they need to match their rivals. However, Congressmen will increasingly take it for granted that all the employees of American Airlines feel the BA/USAir merger is a bad idea, while all the employees of USAir think it's a great plan.

It seems clear that grass roots campaign­ing will become more targeted in the future. As Congressmen come to recognize mass letter campaigns for what they are, and as grass roots campaigns on either side of an issue balance each other out, the quality of the grass is likely to become more important than the quantity, and the challenge for PR people will be identifying the influences.

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