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
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
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
Chat rooms, web sites and ads can be used to tip off online users to
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
DOS AND DON’TS
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