EDITORIAL: The murky waters of grassroots PR

There's no doubt that grassroots PR can be very effective as a PR

tool. But it's also a controversial one. That's because, for most

Americans "grassroots movements" bring to mind the stirring efforts of

ordinary citizens who rise up together to effect change beyond their

individual reach.



Now as we all know, that's not how it always works. In reality, citizens

are often either uninformed or unconnected - and it takes the work of PR

practitioners to educate them, fund them, and bring them all

together.



Corporate America is, in effect, the binding agent for a cause.



But to most Americans, the idea of a grassroots movement started by a PR

department is paradoxical, if not absurd. And this makes it easy for the

media, and opponents, to suggest that, even when the campaign represents

the interests of ordinary consumers with real concerns, the efforts have

been "manufactured" - or in PR parlance, that they're "Astroturf" (see

PR Technique, p. 18).



While "Astroturf" in its truest sense - which is pure fabrication - is

easy to dismiss, there are other commonly used PR tactics which tread a

fine line between wholesome grassroots and evil "Astroturf," and it's

easy to overstep the mark. Creating a coalition with a misleading name

to mask your client's intent, or hiding the client's involvement in a

cause - while not technically "Astroturf" - nevertheless creates the

chance for naturally suspecting journalists to "expose" your cause, even

when your intentions are honorable.



In these murky waters between right and wrong, even the slightest hint

of deception must be avoided, and a perception of transparency must be

conveyed in everything you do. So before you consider a grassroots

campaign, we recommend that you anticipate how a journalist might write

the story on the front page of a national newspaper. Any strategy that

can't pass that test, shouldn't get past the conference room.



Weber Shandwick's second watershed As the PR industry tries to get its

head around the implications of Weber Shandwick's merger with BSMG, a

team of WSW executives were flying back from the IOC meeting in Moscow

celebrating another watershed in the history of PR.



The fact that this team had helped Beijing to persuade the IOC to give

the 2008 Olympics to China in the face of widespread public criticism of

China's human rights record (see Media Watch, p. 10) shows a new

sophistication in China's understanding of PR issues.



Of course, agency business has been picking up steadily in the country

over the past few years, as American corporations have set up shop in

China (see next week's Global Rankings issue for more details). But this

is the first time that the Chinese government has used Western PR

counsel, and its success will not be lost on the local public sector,

even more so now that Chinese companies are seeking to promote

themselves overseas with entry into the World Trade Association.



As WSW negotiates a new contract, it's possible that the Chinese

government may have cause over the next seven years to rue the day it

effectively invited the world's press to camp on its doorstep. On the

other hand, if WSW can persuade the Chinese government to effect the

promised social and political change, it would be PR's ultimate

endorsement.



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