That the blogosphere has emerged as a powerful force in American politics is beyond dispute. During the last presidential election, bloggers on both sides of the political divide were able to influence the agenda, perhaps most notably when bloggers called into question the authenticity of documents that formed the basis of a 60 Minutes report into the President’s service in the National Guard. This year, progressive blogs have fueled the backlash that now looks likely to cost former vice presidential candidate Joseph Lieberman his spot on the Democratic ticket in Connecticut.
But it is more difficult to make a case that the power of the blogosphere has extended into the realm of corporate public affairs. There has been plenty of criticism on progressive blogs of ExxonMobil and other oil companies, mostly around what some perceive as excessive profits at a time when gas prices are on the rise. Some bloggers have been equally critical of the telecom companies, following charges that they provided confidential customer information to the Bush administration as it dug through Americans’ phone records.
But to date blogs have played a relatively minor role in shaping the relationship between corporate interests and the political realm and in shaping policy as it affects big business in the United States.
That could be about to change, if a recent article in The Financial Times is to be believed. Writing about efforts by Google and a host of other Internet companies to defend “Net Neutrality” (the notion that all the information on the Internet should be equally accessible to consumers), the FT asserted that Google and its allies were “challenging not just the style of Washington lobbying but the central fact of power in the capital: that money often speaks louder than democracy.”
By using the Internet—and the blogosphere in particular—to mobilize supporters, the Net Neutrality movement has, according to the FT, “got the voters talking directly to the legislators—without the intermediary of opulently shod lobbyists—in ways that could profoundly influence the future of lawmaking and lobbying.”
Public affairs experts are divided about the long-term influence of the blogosphere on policy, but they are broadly agreed on a number of points: first, that the Net Neutrality issue is unique in that it has both philosophical and financial implications for progressive bloggers; second, that the Google coalition campaign is neither as new nor as transformational as the FT’s reporting might suggest; and third, that the campaign ultimately failed in its objective, crashing to defeat in both the House and the Senate.
The Net Neutrality issue pits telecommunications companies against Internet companies, bloggers, and a host of not-for-profit organizations ranging from the progressive Electronic Frontier Foundation to conservative groups including Gun Owners of America and the Christian Coalition.
The telecommunications companies want to be able to charge the owners of web sites a fee in exchange for providing consumers with faster access to their content, claiming that they need to do so in order to continue to invest in high-speed Internet infrastructure.
Supporters of Net Neutrality worry that such a dramatic in the way the Internet works would give telecommunications companies that ability to pick winners and losers online and stifle innovation. Large companies fear that because they provide so much high-bandwidth content, they will be forced to pick up most of the cost of new investment. Small, independent voices—bloggers and NGOs—worry that only the big guys will be able to afford to pay, that the voice of the little guy will thus be stifled.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, citied the concerns of the blogosphere during the debate, warning that “bloggers, our citizen journalists, could be silenced by skyrocketing costs to post and share video and audio clips.”
Many ordinary consumers, meanwhile, are alarmed because they don’t like the idea that having already paid extra for high-speed Internet access, they could be denied speedy access to their favorite sites because its owners could not afford to pay the telecom company surcharge.
In the face of this opposition, telecommunications companies chose to frame the issue in terms designed to appeal to the Republican majority in Congress and its supporters, with a simple message: “Don’t regulate the Internet.” Thus, the attempt to preserve the democratic and meritocratic nature of the Internet as it has evolved over the past 20 years was positioned as an attempt to impose new regulations that could stifle its continued growth.
As a result, the U.S. House of Representatives voted to kill an amendment to the Communications Act of 1934 that would have ensured the continued equal treatment of Internet traffic, and to pass an alternative amendment that expressly bans the Federal Communications Commission from creating rules to enforce net neutrality. A Senate committee, meanwhile, rejected an amendment that would have preserved equal pricing for all Internet traffic.
That defeat notwithstanding, some commentators have pointed to the battle of Net Neutrality as an indicator of a new wave in public affairs. Mark Schannon, a veteran of senior public affairs positions at Monsanto and Ketchum and currently political editor of blogcritics.org, an e-magazine that draws 2 million hits a month, is not buying it: “The issue of Net Neutrality is not a good barometer of the power of the internet to influence public policy or a shifting balance between people power and money for the simple reason that it speaks to the heart of this new but ill-defined phenomenon, Internet 2.0,” he says.
“Not only do Google, Yahoo, and the other major sites have a vested interest in this case, but there’s an inherent distrust in the telecoms, cable companies, and internet providers. It’s the kind of issue that’s more likely to attract millions of bloggers and internet users on the side of ‘freedom of access,’ regardless of the facts behind the issue.”
But even if the lessons of the Net Neutrality battle were universally applicable, it’s not entirely clear what they are.
John Ashford, chairman and chief executive of the Hawthorn Group and a veteran of grassroots campaigns over three decades, is particularly scornful of the idea that the Google campaign was either innovative or transformational. “While a modern-day Mr. Smith Goes to Washington may make appealing copy,” he says, “and while Google’s is a high profile brand, the FT’s article doesn’t reflect reality, or even the facts, let alone the total defeat Google suffered.”
Gene Reineke, who heads the U.S. public affairs practice at Hill & Knowlton, agrees that there was nothing unique about Google’s use of the Internet to mobilize support. “It is simply the extension of the reality of technology adapted to grassroots campaigns, as well as developing coalitions.”
In reality, the use of the Internet to mobilize grassroots support is a tried and tested technique.
“While Howard Dean’s presidential campaign made news in 2003 by its innovative use of the Internet, the first lobbying use well pre-dated that. From coal-lovers to coal-haters, from tree-huggers to tree-cutters, from pro-labor to anti-union, from pro-life to pro-choice, e-mails have flooded Washington in increasing numbers since the end of the last decade.”
Longer than that, says Sean Garrett, a partner at San Francisco-based 463 Communication, a technology public relations firm with a digital advocacy practice. “There has been online activism almost as long as there has been a public Web. The Net Neutrality fight has many parallels to Communications Decency Act battle that raged beginning in 1995. Online activists were emboldened by free-speech issues and teamed with established companies to fight the legislation.”
The activists persuaded many leading websites, including Yahoo!, to turn their pages black for a day in protest at the bill, organized online petitions that gathered more than 100,000 signatures, and facilitated direct constituent communications to members of Congress. Despite those activities, opponents of the act lost the fight in Congress and President Clinton eventually signed the bill—although it was later overturned by the Supreme Court.
The battle over the Communications Decency Act also suggested that the Internet can only take the lead role in grassroots organizing around very specific, usually Internet-related, issues.
Says Garrett, “If we can learn from recent history, the CDA battle taught us that the Web can quickly bring people together to marshal forces for a common cause, but that if the driving issue goes away, so do many of the participants. You need a pressing, immediate battle to really rally the troops. As the Net Neutrality battle is likely to slip into a new Congress and become more of a nuanced battle, it will be interesting to see if the ‘net roots’ maintains its attention.”
As for the idea that Google is challenging the hegemony of big money lobbyists, “For nearly three decades, lots of direct lobbying campaigns have put constituents in direct touch with legislators, including in recent years through the Internet,” says Ashford. If there’s anything new about the Google campaign, at least in the FT’s reporting of it, it’s that it appears to have relied on the organizing power of the Internet to the exclusion of all other instruments of influence.
But the contention that Google did not employ “opulently shod lobbyists” is contradicted within the article itself, which quotes Vin Weber, a former Republican Congressman who works for Omnicom-owned lobbying firm Clark & Weinstock, represents the Google coalition, and can afford the best footwear the capital has to offer.
Ashford points out that the coalition of Internet companies has spent $20 million on lobbying so far this year, up from $11 million in 2005, and Google hired Joshua Hastert, son of House Speaker Dennis Hastert, as part of its lobbying team.
The real lesson of the Net Neutrality campaign is that the Internet—and increasingly, the blogosphere—can and should be part of a broad-based public affairs effort, but that it cannot achieve success alone. And the real problem with the Google coalition campaign is that while the Internet outreach was well managed and generally effective, the more traditional elements of the effort were badly mismanaged.
A Washington Post article on efforts by Google co-founder Sergey Brin to plead his case in person to leading lawmakers summed up the consensus with its headline: “Google is a Tourist in D.C.” Brin, who is the world’s 16th richest person and who leads one of America’s largest corporations, was able to meet with just four Senators, and could not secure an audience with commerce committee chairman Ted Stevens, who played the pivotal role in the Net Neutrality debate.
“The cable industry and the phone industry have a long history of dealing with policy issues,” Blair Levin, a telecom regulatory analyst at Stifel Nicolaus & Co., told the Post. “Their teams have a better understanding of the flows and the timing. Their CEOs are here regularly, and I would be very surprised if their CEOS tried to arrange meetings at the last minute.”
In the FT article, Scott Cleland, founder and CEO of the Precursor Group and a lobbyist for the telecommunications companies, called the Google approach naïve.
But public affairs expert believe the company’s use of the Internet was an inevitable consequence of its relative neophyte status in the policy arena.
“I’m not sure the Google campaign is necessarily unique, but I do think it’s smart,” says Jamie Moeller, head of the public affairs practice at Ogilvy Public Relations Worldwide. “Google doesn’t have the Washington ‘footprint’ its opponents do. It doesn’t have a large D.C. staff and the level of its political contributions—still the mother’s milk of politics—pales in comparison to the big telecoms it is up against.
“Instead of fighting on traditional turf owned by Verizon and others, Google has very adeptly employed the assets it does have—a great brand reputation for openness, democracy and transparency, a fanatical following—and a technology that allows everyone to have a say and to be heard.”
Hill & Knowlton’s Reineke, meanwhile, dismisses the charges that Google is naïve as “just the opposition trying to downplay the fact that it now must deal with a new reality when it comes to interacting with elected officials. What’s smart about the campaign is that while it may be rare that any single constituent’s view changes a legislator’s thinking or vote, the volume of messages generated by a campaign will most certainly get the attention of legislators and the staffs.”
That volume alone may not be enough.
Says Ashford, “Even as a longtime champion of grassroots and grass-tops advocacy, I would never argue that it, alone, can overpower professional lobbying, supported by political funding, public relations and all the other available means of persuasion that can be mobilized by a well-funded opposition.” And the telecommunications industry’s lobbying campaign on Net Neutrality was nothing if not well-funded. The phone and cable companies and their trade associations spent $71 million last year on their overall lobbying in Washington, dwarfing the $20 million spend by the Internet companies.
Garrett agrees. “Just like online activism and public affairs efforts of the 1990s, the Web 2.0 version still represents a single battleground in the overall war to pass or defeat legislation,” he says. “What’s different now is the impact of the Web on other key public affairs audiences like Web-savvy mainstream media and third-party interest groups. The Internet companies’ success in driving attention to this issue through new communications means is not lost on those who oppose net neutrality legislation—otherwise they wouldn’t be starting blogs and producing Web videos.”
But at the end of the day, “the rules haven’t changed—only the technology,” says Schannon. “Traditional public affairs seeks to find influential like-minded people and groups to support a cause. The internet works the same way—but it’s both easier and harder to get it working right. Easier because the technology provides faster and more powerful communications; harder because you have to sift through an awful lot of chaff to find some wheat.”
And the most interesting technological innovation of the Net Neutrality debate may not have been the use of blogs, but the use of video.
“The most exciting new public affairs tool that has come out of the Net Neutrality debates has been the effective use of video to tell a complex story much more effectively than a thousand-word blog screed,” says Garrett. “Search ‘Net Neutrality’ on YouTube and be amazed by the creative uses of video and animation to position the issue. Any public affairs firm worth its salt is going to need to have a video capability and understanding of editing applications like Final Cut very soon. Likewise, they’ll need to understand that unlike in the age of the $30,000 VNR, they will be fighting for eyeballs with 17-year-olds lip-synching Shakira songs in their bedroom.”
Moeller says he doesn’t think Google’s efforts will change the way public affairs is done in the nation’s capital. “That’s already happened,” he says. “The advent of the internet and 24/7 news cycles has opened the policymaking process to anyone who wants to pay attention. Now anyone with a computer or a television can watch the sausage being made. That means that to succeed in D.C. now, you need much more than access and relationships with a few key committee chairs or a couple of highly placed White House officials.
“The day of the backroom deal is dead. Politicians now understand that their decisions on important policy matters will face searing public scrutiny from the media, constituents and activists, who will hound them online—and occasionally offline—if they disagree with their decisions. As a result, politicians now need to see demonstrable political support for a position before they take action, through positive media coverage, constituent support and, increasingly, online chatter.”
As for the blogosphere, its power is likely to increase.
“Bloggers are a growing constituency in the realm of public affairs,” says Reineke. “They are simply the new reality. For ‘progressive blogs’ to warn of the dire consequences associated with a particular issue or action is not new in my view. However, when established sites with daily readerships in the tens of thousands pick up an issue, it’s going to receive attention. Popular bloggers have loyal readers that are incredibly active in the political sphere, and if you can penetrate that readership with your message, you can be successful.”
Moeller agrees. “Politicians ignore the blogosphere at their own peril,” he says. “Increasingly what had been largely a forum for cranks to rant and rave is setting the political agenda for the political parties and the mainstream media. The outsized power of bloggers is clear in any number of examples: the use of forged documents by 60 Minutes in its story about George W. Bush’s National Guard service was uncovered and fanned by bloggers—not by the mainstream media or supporters of the President. The controversy over Dubai Ports taking over management of some U.S. ports exploded in the blogosphere as surprised politicians of all stripes raced to catch up to the story and capitalize on it for their own agendas while the mainstream media did their level best to appear to be on top of the story.
“Bloggers tend to be the most intense advocates and therefore reflect—and attract—the more extreme sides of the political spectrum. But it is extreme factions within the political parties—the much ballyhooed ‘base’—that has always set the political agenda. It is tempered by real world political realities, but it starts with those who are most active and have the most intense feelings. This dynamic used to play out in party primaries and caucuses. Now, increasingly, it’s playing out online.”
That’s why Ogilvy has established a service it calls 360 Degree Digital Advocacy designed to help clients successfully navigate “this influential, but highly charged, environment. We do not engage in any public affairs campaign without a robust digital strategy,” says Moeller. “To do otherwise would be tantamount to malpractice in the current environment.”
The firm uses its 360 Degree Digital Advocacy to do three things:
• Track issues and trends online. “Most activists and advocacy groups now use the online world to educate, organize and mobilize around their issues,”Moeller says. “By having a sophisticated system that monitors the blogs, the chat rooms, search engines, etc. we can help make sure our clients aren’t blindsided by competing interests or adversarial activist groups. It also allows us to plot a strategy to get out ahead of issues and to sometimes win them before they become contentious.”
• Educate, organize and activate our client’s key stakeholders. “The internet is the most efficient educational and organizing tool yet invented and we work with our public affairs clients to make sure they are employing it in a way that supports their advocacy efforts. This entails identifying the audiences who have a real stake in an issue, educating them both about the issue and their shared stake and finally providing them with the tools they need to take action.” Moeller calls this approach “the antithesis of the rightly discredited ‘Astroturf.’ Our approach is based on our grassroots advocates having a genuine shared stake in the outcome of an issue and understanding the issue with sufficient depth to take effective action on their own.”
• Communicating to external audiences. “We employ 360 Degree Digital Advocacy to communicate our clients’ positions to key audiences—usually influencers and policymakers—making sure our clients are part of the vast online conversation that takes place on most controversial policy issues. We do this through a variety of online avenues: search engine pptimization, to make sure our client’s position is readily accessible for those seeking more information; engaging in chat rooms to be part of the conversation; posting on appropriate wikis to demonstrate transparency; and finally engaging in the blogosphere.”
“We work with our clients to identify the most influential bloggers on their issue,” says Moeller. “We then approach the bloggers from an educational perspective, not an advocacy perspective. The bloggers will reject—sometimes very publicly—overtures that appear to be contrived or overly slanted toward one side of an issue. An approach not based on giving objective information in a transparent fashion to a blogger is almost certainly destined to fail—probably in spectacular fashion. Our approach instead is based on engaging the bloggers in a dialogue that attracts our target audiences and demonstrates the strength of our client’s position and the transparency of the information.
“In some important ways, bloggers are not terribly different than reporters—they constantly need fresh material; they have a need to engage their readers, through controversy, new angles and interesting information; they hate to be sold or manipulated. Keeping this in mind can help navigate this increasingly powerful and rapidly evolving world.”
The Internet clearly offers public affairs professionals a powerful medium through which they can mobilize support around an issue.
Says Reineke, “Having worked for some time in a Governor’s office I can tell you that constituent letters are indeed paid attention to, but there are differences between individually written correspondence and form generated letters. Volume matters—but more so as an indicator of a trend or organized efforts. The reality is that it will be an extremely rare issue or cause that is able to generate and sustain a successful flow of creative individual letters.” For that reason, “generated letter campaigns and e-mails will still be the standard practice.”
But there is some evidence that generated letter campaigns could already be provoking a backlash.
Says Ashford, “A deluge of Internet messages is no more effective—and no more likely to be seen personally by the senator or representative—than the mountains of postcards flooding the capitol in previous decades. The first time it happens, it has enormous impact. It works less well the second time, and even less well each subsequent time.”
There is certainly evidence that members of Congress are growing weary of the kind of mass e-mail campaigns generated by the simply push of a button. In recent months, some House members have installed technology that required e-mail correspondents to solve a simple math or logic problem before their e-mails can get through—a simple device designed to ensure that the correspondence originated with an actual person rather than a machine.
“E-mail campaigns have a place in today’s political process, but grass-roots advocacy groups rely on them far too often, and their usefulness is increasingly limited,” says Amy Showalter, founder of The Showalter Group, which provides grassroots counsel to corporations and others. “Interest groups and trade associations spend a lot of organizational resources on the software they use to send e-mails to Congress, but now it looks like their investment, while necessary and worthy, may not be paying off as intended.
“It represents the classic case of failing to listen to the customer—in this case, the legislators who receive their missives.”
There is also a backlash against Astroturf letters and e-mails in the blogosphere, where blogs such as InOpinion and TheNewPR have attacked organizations from Focus on the Family on the right to MoveOn on the left that enable thousands of readers to send identical letters on an issue to their elected representatives or editors of local newspapers.
InOpinion denounces such campaigns as plagiarism, even if in this case the copying is done with the original author’s permission. “Plagiarism is not a copyright violation, there are three parties involved: The original writer, the plagiarist and the new reader. The new reader is being deceived that they are reading an original work.”
Focus on the Family, at its website, tells its readers that “it is not unethical or ‘plagiarism’ for you to assemble and submit a letter using this tool. We offer this information to help you put into words your thoughts on this important subject.” But InOpinion is unimpressed: “These astroturfers offer canned letters to be copied. They are not ‘helping.’ Helping would be editing already written letters or providing some research or some links. What Focus on the Family and others do is provide complete letters to the editor with minimal involvement from the person who will claim to be the letter’s author.”
TheNewPR, meanwhile, has launched an “anti-astroturfing” campaign that has so far attracted the support of 25 PR bloggers—though relatively few practitioners.
The ethics of mass generated letter or e-mail campaigns are questionable. The individual who signs the letter might not have written it, but he or she presumably agrees with the sentiments expressed and supports the cause in question. On the other hand, the intent is clearly to deceive—to create the impression of original effort on behalf of the letter-writer, to suggest that he or she cared enough to compose a thoughtful piece of correspondence.
But whether it’s ethical or not, it’s not especially smart. The Internet makes it almost inevitable that an Astroturf campaign will be found out and exposing the deception is likely to undermines the author’s intent.
At the end of the day, John Ashford’s perspective on grassroots—whether online or off—holds true. “What works is making it real. Real messages—in the senders’ own words—need to come from real people. They have more impact if the authors are community leaders, activists, campaign volunteers and doners, and they have more impact if they’re sustained over time through a second, third and fourth contact.”
In other words, authenticity matters, no matter what the medium, or how new the channel of communication. Whatever else changes, that is likely to remain the same.