ANALYSIS: Political PR - Advocacy groups use Internet to advantage Advocacy groups have realized sooner than corporations that the Web is the place to go when it comes to rallying support.

Perhaps you walked by a Citibank this past holiday season and heard carolers singing: 'Rudolph the redlined reindeer had a different color nose; and when Citibank saw it, they made sure his account was closed.' This wasn't the sound of confused children forgetting the words; rather, it was the naughty ditty that was prompted by the Rainforest Action Network (RAN), which has reworded a number of carols to address contentious issues it has against Citibank-owner Citi-group, the world's third largest financial institution.

Perhaps you walked by a Citibank this past holiday season and heard carolers singing: 'Rudolph the redlined reindeer had a different color nose; and when Citibank saw it, they made sure his account was closed.' This wasn't the sound of confused children forgetting the words; rather, it was the naughty ditty that was prompted by the Rainforest Action Network (RAN), which has reworded a number of carols to address contentious issues it has against Citibank-owner Citi-group, the world's third largest financial institution.

Perhaps you walked by a Citibank this past holiday season and heard carolers singing: 'Rudolph the redlined reindeer had a different color nose; and when Citibank saw it, they made sure his account was closed.' This wasn't the sound of confused children forgetting the words; rather, it was the naughty ditty that was prompted by the Rainforest Action Network (RAN), which has reworded a number of carols to address contentious issues it has against Citibank-owner Citi-group, the world's third largest financial institution.

RAN altered the classic holiday song in keeping with its claim that Citigroup discriminates against account-holders and borrowers on the basis of race.

Other carols point to Citigroup's role in funding 'some of the most destructive projects around the world,' such as building oil pipelines through the African rainforest. RAN e-mailed supporters to direct them to its Web site where a songbook of the carols can be downloaded.

Passersby can be excused for dismissing the action as a harmless stunt, but public affairs executives should realize that something more serious is going on. And if they don't, then they should read 'Cyber Activism: Advocacy Groups and the Internet,' a study just released by the Foundation for Public Affairs (FPA).

Whether those in public affairs realize it or not, political advocacy groups are often the ones making the most innovative uses of the Internet to advance their agendas, according to Doug Pinkham, FPA president.

The study comes on the heels of a report by Edelman's research practice, StrategyOne, that examines the reputations of corporations and advocacy groups among thought leaders.

StrategyOne president Steve Lombardo says, 'Corporations learned to be proactive (using the Web) when it came to marketing, but were slow to catch on with corporate image and public affairs campaigns.' In Lombardo's view, corporations remained more interested in using traditional media to express their viewpoints, while advocacy groups were quick to embrace the new media.

Consider how the Center for Responsive Politics, a research foundation known for its thorough documentation of interest-group support for elected officials, has used the Internet. Journalists frequently cite its work when covering campaigns. However, the center's product had until recently only been available in a thick book that cost almost dollars 200 and wasn't available until 18 months after an election.

Then the Center launched its 'Open Secrets' Web page. Information went onto the Web as quickly as it could be collated and it was all for free.

The center recorded 270,000 user sessions in April 2000 alone.

Pinkham contends that companies' actions are increasingly being monitored by Web-based activist groups. 'Targeting companies directly - rather than through legislators and regulators - will become more and more common in the years ahead,' he predicts.

The lesson, says Pinkham, is that corporations need to be more careful about how issues are managed globally, maintain better feedback loops with key stakeholders and build more allied groups. The Web can play a valuable role in all of this.

He also notes that the Web-based empowerment of activists can cut both ways for advocacy groups. The FPA study provides an example of this by explaining how dissident members of the Sierra Club used the Web to help put pressure on their own organization for being too compromising.

Pam Fielding of the Internet consulting firm e-advocates notes, 'If you're an organization online, then you better be prepared to stand up for your actions. Any of us who want to know can find out. That's empowering.'

It's not just the terms of the debate, but the effectiveness of advocacy groups that the Web has changed. Take the campaign RAN has waged urging home improvement retailers not to sell old-growth timber. The FPA study details how RAN's Web page included an 'action alert' button that enabled activists to fax the president of 84 Lumber, the nation's fifth largest home improvement retailer.

Last summer, 84 Lumber agreed to change its policies regarding old-growth timber. And while it has not publicly credited RAN with bringing about the change, the company has been in contact with the organization since the new policies took effect, says Jennifer Krill, an old-growth campaigner for RAN.

She claims the Internet was key to the campaign's outcome. It allowed material to be e-mailed, avoiding large printing and postage costs. Plus, it allowed activists to exchange information and have more input than if communication had taken place via regular mail. 'We would have done the same thing without the Internet, but more slowly and less effectively,' she says.

The study also notes that the Web can empower people to take action without banking on an organized group.

E-advocates' Fielding concurs. She gives the example of Irene Weiser, an anti-family violence activist in upstate New York. Weiser became concerned when it looked as if Congress was unlikely to continue funding her local group.

She contacted Fielding, who built a Web site (stopfamilyviolence.org) from an initial investment of dollars 6,000.

The two women then identified supporters through e-mail lists, banner advertising, chat room visits and discussion boards. Supporters were urged to tell friends about the site via e-mail. The result was 164,000 e-mails and letters to Congress in favor of funding. Legislators such as Sen. Joe Biden (D-DE) and Rep. Connie Morella (R-MD) credit the outpouring generated by Weiser's Web site and others with helping to obtain continued funding.

Cyber activists see greater integration between online and offline actions as becoming more important. And Internet strategists such as Stephanie Vance of Advanced Consulting and Penny Crawley of Issue Dynamics say more personalization and customization is needed.

One interesting case mentioned in the study is a Web site built by Internet strategist Robert Arena in support of a lobbying campaign. Arena geared the site towards providing congressional staffers the information they would need to write briefs for their bosses.

Vance notes that environmental organizations such as RAN and the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) have kids' sections on their Web sites - an attempt to recruit the next generation of activists. WWF's 'Windows on the Wild' section can be used by kids and teachers to learn about protecting the environment. Even sites such as those for the US Chamber of Commerce and the National Federation of Independent Business have added sections designed to attract kids.

'The Web is starting to be used to build constituencies that we've not seen or thought of before,' notes Roger Alan Stone, director of the Juno Advocacy Network. He says that business organizations are starting to use the Web to appeal to stockholders on business issues.

Pinkham notes that some corporations and associations, such as Cisco Systems and BlueCross BlueShield, are using the Web proactively in their public affairs efforts. But many more have been slow to realize its value and are stunned by how the Internet is used against them by advocacy groups.

Of course, not everyone is surprised by the Web's power. Thirty-one years ago a meeting was held at the University of Chicago to discuss the changes that a projected 'information utility' could bring to American society.

One of the participants said the country would have to decide whether it really wanted the true democracy that would be possible. The Internet age's cyber democracy should make it clear to public affairs executives that it is no longer a matter of choice.



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