Letter-writing campaigns subvert democracy

The US Army's recent PR blunder illustrates the downside of letter-writing campaigns: that they are fraudulent and misleading, writes US commentator Paul Holmes

The letter-writing PR campaign orchestrated by a military officer to boost support for US activities in Iraq among Americans has backfired in spectacular fashion (PRWeek, 24 October).

In response to media stories about the problems in Iraq, letters began to appear in local newspapers around the US. These missives, signed by soldiers, described the accomplishments of the occupation - including, for example, efforts to re-establish police and fire departments - and claimed that the locals were supportive of the efforts being made by US soldiers.

The problem arose when one newspaper received two identical letters signed by two different soldiers. An investigation revealed that most of the soldiers had signed the letters, but not actually written them. It's hard to believe that an effort so inept was conducted or condoned by public affairs professionals.

More likely, it was the work of an over-zealous and none-too-bright soldier. But it illustrates why a practice that has become pervasive to our industry should be shunned by practitioners with integrity.

I'm familiar with all the arguments for such campaigns: that they help people who don't have enough time to communicate directly with their government; and that since people sign the letters and therefore clearly agree with their content, there's nothing misleading going on.

Those defences are hollow - to me, the practice is fraudulent and misleading. One of the reasons letter-writing campaigns are used is that letters are perceived - or are intended to be perceived - as more powerful expressions of opinion than a mere petition. That perception stems from the fact that writing a letter requires a citizen to consider an issue carefully enough to express his or her own thoughts on it, and to take the time to sit down and commit those thoughts to paper.

But mass letter-writing campaigns require no such effort. In fact, they are an attempt to gain the force and credibility of a letter while requiring the effort and commitment of a petition. If the intent was not to mislead, then why not simply submit a petition? And the overall effect is to undermine the credibility of people who really are passionate enough about an issue to write their own letters. In doing so, such campaigns subvert democracy - which may, of course, be the whole idea behind them.

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