Few things are as likely to influence a legislator as a bloc of
vocal, motivated voters. Legislators sit up and pay attention when the
people who voted them into office unite around an issue, because they
know their political future may hang in the balance.
But such is the power of unified voters that public affairs
practitioners and corporations have been known to invent them when none
exist. In order to influence lawmakers and change public opinion, they
will create organizations out of thin air that have the look and feel of
Or, they'll create misleading front groups to make unsuspecting
spokespeople of well-meaning citizens. The illusion is called Astroturf,
as in artificial grassroots.
Most responsible professionals in the world of public affairs agree:
faking it is not only ineffective, but it can backfire - badly.
One of the most notorious examples of Astroturf came from Microsoft.
In 1998, the Los Angeles Times reported that the software giant, under
siege from antitrust investigators, was "planning a massive media
campaign designed to influence state investigators by creating the
appearance of a groundswell of public support for the company" by
"planting ... articles, letters to the editor, and opinion pieces."
Spokespeople for Microsoft at the time responded that the idea was "only
a proposal," and that it hadn't been acted upon. And even though the
conversations were with real people, with real concerns, the perception
that this support was manufactured was indelible. In 2000, The Wall
Street Journal accused the company of paying people to write letters and
make calls to lawmakers on its behalf. Again, Microsoft denied the
accusations, saying only that it paid lobbying firm Century Strategies
to coordinate the letter writing.
Nonetheless, the resulting media coverage was damaging in its derision
of the company.
Another popular way of trying to fake grassroots support is the
all-too-popular "front group." This is an allegedly grassroots
organization with an intentionally misleading name, created to generate
support from voters who would otherwise represent the opposition. (For
example, a group calling itself the National Wetlands Association was in
fact supported by large developers and oil and gas companies).
The people behind these groups have several methods of creating the
illusion of support - many of which are simply bad, if not illegitimate,
grassroots tactics. Among them are mailing identical cards or form
letters explaining only one side of an issue to a group of voters, then
asking them to add their names and send them to the proper lawmaker. Or
making random calls to voters and asking if they'd mind being patched
through to a legislator's office so they can endorse a piece of
legislation, without fully explaining the bill.
It's tempting, because it appears to offer a controllable way of
achieving influence. It also, sometimes, seems to be the only option,
says Ed Grefe, VP and chief political consultant at Legislative
"It's generally brought about out of fear that there is no legitimate
constituency. They stand alone and therefore have to phony it up," he
But it's also highly risky.
First of all, the media (particularly the press) is keen to unearth
anything it perceives is an underhand PR campaign, even if it's actually
legitimate grassroots. Shandwick discovered this last fall, when a
campaign for its client Schering-Plough (which funded groups that
lobbied for more spending on education and treatment of Hepatitis C),
was accused by The Washington Post of manufacturing Astroturf. The
article alleged that the Schering link was hidden because the company
makes a Hepatitis C drug. Shandwick maintains that everything was made
clear, both verbally to the groups, and written on support
Secondly, even if the media doesn't catch you, the campaign targets
"I think that people on the Hill and in state legislatures now recognize
the difference between Astroturf and real grassroots," says Jamie
Moeller, global director of public affairs at Ogilvy PR. "When a
legislator hears a legitimate concern from a constituent, that makes a
difference. When a legislator gets something that is clearly
manufactured, it is at best ignored."
If an Astroturf campaign is exposed, the political consequences can be
"Washington is a very small town, whose leaders share a common
characteristic: long memories," says Larry Haas, public affairs director
at Manning Selvage & Lee, and former director of communications for both
Al Gore and the White House Office of Management and Budget. "In
Washington, all you have is your word. People are categorized as
straight shooters or otherwise, and people who try to cut corners and
get a quick hit out of something and do so dishonestly tend to suffer in
Astroturf tactics supposedly create the impression of a groundswell of
public support. But legislators are rarely taken in, because a
half-informed constituent doesn't make for a very good spokesperson.
"Campaigns that have fallen into disrepute are those that didn't engage
people with a real stake in the issue," says Moeller. "Real grassroots
is about getting stakeholders engaged, then providing them with the
tools to take action. They need to come to debate for their own reasons.
If you're out there trying to generate people to come to your debate for
the wrong reasons, it will backfire."
Grefe tells a story about a lobbying effort in Helena, MT that backs up
Moeller's claim. "The speaker of the House said to me, 'We have
information from this committee saying exactly the opposite of what
you're saying.' So I told him to have his staff call and see if the
people (who signed the letter) were for real. He checked and found out
that these people weren't even aware of what was going on. On that
alone, we were able to reverse the vote."
Fortunately, the message appears to be sinking in that Astroturf is not
worth the risk.
According to Doug Pinkham, president of the Public Affairs Council, use
of Astroturf tactics are on the decline: "Not only does it not work, the
potential downside is so huge. All it takes is a reporter to find you
out, and it becomes a huge story. Any gain you might have had is offset
by the loss of your reputation."
LEGITIMATE GRASSROOTS CAMPAIGNS:
Are purely voluntary
- Educate supporters on a long-term basis to prepare them for 'calls to
- Provide an honest assessment of the public policy issues
- Encourage supporters to speak from their own experiences, not just cut
and paste a letter.