PR TECHNIQUE: ASTROTURF - Grassroots: beware of imitations. Grassroots campaigns to influence legislators have never been more popular or effective. But public affairs people have been known to fake it.

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

grassroots coalitions.

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."

Classic Astroturf.

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

Demographic Services.

"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

probably will.

"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

the end."

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."


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.

Have you registered with us yet?

Register now to enjoy more articles and free email bulletins

Already registered?
Sign in