PR TECHNIQUE: PUBLIC AFFAIRS - New generation of grassroots campaigns - Now that everyone’s onto phony ’Astroturf’ campaigns, Steve Lilienthal turns up the newest ideas for organizing at the grassroots level

Grassroots campaigns are just that - they mobilize people at the local level. They take time, energy, commitment and often a lot of money, but the return on investment can be worth it.

Grassroots campaigns are just that - they mobilize people at the local level. They take time, energy, commitment and often a lot of money, but the return on investment can be worth it.

Grassroots campaigns are just that - they mobilize people at the

local level. They take time, energy, commitment and often a lot of

money, but the return on investment can be worth it.

Yet many experts believe that too many trade associations and other

groups discount the power of grassroots campaigns. ’Too many CEOs go to

Congress only to hear from representatives, ’I don’t hear about this

from the people,’’ says Brian Lunde, principal of Shandwick Grassroots

(Washington, DC).

Grassroots efforts can be invaluable - they can help develop public

opinion on a legislative or regulatory issue and ensure that it is


But, as Jack Bonner, president of Washington-based Bonner & Associates

notes: ’Not all grassroots actions are equal in effectiveness. You must

choose those actions that move the issue your way.’

Edward Cooper, vice president of The Hawthorn Group (Alexandria, VA),

says groups that ignore early grassroots organizing often end up playing

catch-up: ’They’ll often resort to what can be done fastest.’ That

usually means pre-packaged ’Astroturf’ letters, postcards and phone

calls. Real grassroots allows opportunity for individual expression that

displays greater personal commitment to and passion about an issue. A

handwritten letter from a union member against the renewal of the

favored trade status to China is more effective than a pre-printed


The typical grassroots campaign is structured to identify, educate and

motivate key constituencies. The goal is to make sure grassroots opinion

is targeted to officials in the decision-making process.

Early efforts at demonstrating support involve ’grass-tops’ programs

that are directed at either influencing local opinion leaders - who have

a close relationship with an elected official or board members of an

organization - or at an institution whose support is desired.

Lunde emphasizes that good grass-tops efforts should seek out leaders

whom the targeted official knows and trusts. It sounds like common sense

but sometimes, Lunde notes, the opinion leaders chosen are the

official’s opponents.

Grass-tops contacts need to be constant and varied.

One week the congressman’s finance chairman writes a letter, the next

week a phone call comes from the head of the local bank. Then, the

treasurer of the local chamber of commerce speaks to the congressman at

a town hall meeting.

Grass-tops is usually just the first step - an important issue demands

organization. And Bonner emphasizes that, when recruiting leaders of

local and state organizations, an in-depth conversation about an issue

will be helpful. ’There are things you can’t learn in focus groups,’ he

says, explaining that the focus group is better at explaining surface


He offers this example of why listening is important: Bonner had a

fast-food client fighting a local ordinance that required paper instead

of plastic containers. He not only got local business groups on board,

but he also recruited senior organizations.

Bonner’s organizers learned that senior citizens who depend on Meals on

Wheels would find themselves eating cold food if the new paper-container

regulations were implemented. Bonner’s agency got the point across by

delivering meals in plastic (stayed warm) and paper (got cold) to the

county supervisors’ meeting.

Having recruits such as members of the local farm bureau, or chamber of

commerce, meet with editorial boards and appear at local media events is

also important. It provides evidence that the issue really hits home


Timing is also crucial. Contacts from the grassroots to the officials

being targeted should peak just before the decision will be made. While

phone calls and telegrams are important, the more personalized they are

the better. Bonner recounts the example of the Kyoto Treaty that

involved fuel costs: Rather than have people e-mail their congressional

representatives about the treaty, his company designed a web calculator

that determined how much a person’s fuel costs would rise under the

measure. Users sent the calculations in an e-mail to Capitol Hill.

Lunde stresses the need to ensure that an ’ongoing dialog’ is

established with the citizens being activated. The days of form letters

and pre-printed postcards are numbered. Elected officials want to hear

real voices and see real people expressing their viewpoint.

Bob Sommer, EVP/principal of The MWW Group (East Rutherford, NJ),

believes that, as grassroots and grass-tops campaigns become common, a

’grass-seeds’ effort can make the difference. Grass-seeds seeks to

mobilize the unmobilized.

In many cases, Sommer notes, these are people who take a stand on an

issue but are not affiliated with a group.

The Internet is a good tool for reaching such people, and issues

involving ’Netizens’ are often ones where a grass-seeds approach will be

most effective.

Chat rooms, web sites and ads can be used to tip off online users to

important issues.

But not all of them are wired, so field activities are often vital to

finding them. For example, The MWW Group has reached out to Generation Y

on anti-tobacco campaigns through sponsored social events.

The edge can come from generating contacts from non-traditional


’When 1,000 letters come to a congressman’s office from people who cared

about the issue, that can have more impact than 1,000 letters that come

from a plant’s workers,’ Sommer says, but he adds that traditional

programs are still essential.

’This is where PR is going,’ Sommer predicts. ’It used to be that

lobbying and PR were separate disciplines. Grassroots is the meeting of

the two.’



1 Pick the type of grassroots campaign that’s best for your


2 Identify, educate and motivate key constituencies about the issue.

3 In ’grass-tops’ efforts, seek out leaders whom the targeted official

knows and trusts and vary the types of communications.


1 Discount the power of grassroots campaigns.

2 Wait until the last minute. You’ll end up doing an ’Astroturf’

campaign, which is not as effective as the genuine article.

3 Rely only on focus groups. Talk to leaders of local organizations.

4 Neglect timing. Contacts to officials should peak just before the

decision-making deadline.

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