GRASS-ROOTS PR: Big Business travels local route into China - The dust has settled in the battle over trade relations with China, and Big Business has won. How did the PNTR proponents do it? As Steve Lilienthal discovers, they took a page from their oppon

If history had repeated itself, as it often does, this is how things would have turned out with the House of Representatives’ vote on Permanent Normal Trade Relations (PNTR) with China.

If history had repeated itself, as it often does, this is how things would have turned out with the House of Representatives’ vote on Permanent Normal Trade Relations (PNTR) with China.

If history had repeated itself, as it often does, this is how

things would have turned out with the House of Representatives’ vote on

Permanent Normal Trade Relations (PNTR) with China.

Labor mounts a vigorous push to defeat the agreement. Business responds

slowly and less aggressively in support, leading an AFL-CIO spokesperson

to insist: ’The dollar for dollar doesn’t matter. We have the ability to

mobilize working families in congressional districts all over the

country.’ The vote keeps getting delayed, finally going down to


However, history didn’t repeat itself, and when AFL-CIO president John

Sweeney addressed his side’s failure, his explanation was simple: ’Big

money won.’

Plenty of big budget campaigns become big busts. But although corporate

America spent much more to promote PNTR than it did on the ill-fated

1997-’98 campaign to grant the president fast-track negotiating

authority on trade treaties, it also spent smarter.

Stealing the PR playbook

White House and GOP leadership lobbying clearly contributed to PNTR’s

40-vote victory in the House. But another important factor was the

ability of the proponents to learn from the past - and from their


In the wake of the post-Seattle media hype and public anxiety over

globalization, PNTR proponents revised their PR playbook to demonstrate

grass-roots support for their message.

For all the emphasis that the proponents, which included America’s most

powerful business associations (notably the US Chamber of Commerce and

The Business Roundtable), and the opponents (the AFL-CIO and the

Steelworkers, United Auto Workers and Teamsters unions) placed on PNTR,

most Americans did not pay attention to the issue. In fact, Gallup

polling in early May showed 70% of Americans paying scant attention.

Economic Policy Institute visiting fellow David Kusnet notes that the

opponents and proponents of PNTR had different PR challenges. PNTR

opponents had significant support according to some polls but needed to

mobilize it, while PNTR proponents ’did not so much need to change

public opinion but to take the edge off it,’ he says.

An observer of the battle, Public Affairs Council president Doug

Pinkham, says the PNTR campaign provides a ’good example of the business

community getting its act together and coalescing around an issue.’ But

he believes the best public affairs efforts are not the last-minute,

pre-packaged ’Astroturf’ efforts but ones that start early, build and

educate a constituency, motivating members to take action.

That sort of grass-roots operation was missing in the 1997-’98

fast-track battle. That loss and the sense that the opponents of trade

liberalization had a strong grass-roots presence prompted organizations

like The Business Roundtable (BRT) to rethink their strategy.

The BRT’s board decided that it would make more sense to build a durable

grass-roots, pro-trade network than to mount stand-alone campaigns on a

vote-by-vote basis. BRT built such an organization, dubbed goTRADE, in

19 states and 88 targeted congressional districts and recruited

business, community and academic leaders to become local advocates for


When PNTR became a hot issue, the local advocates met with their members

of Congress during the Easter recess to emphasize the importance of

trade to the local economy. But it was more than a lobbying effort:

goTRADE members also met with local newspaper editorial boards and

submitted opinion pieces to be published in local newspapers.

Noting that labor advocates had taken advantage of a similar recess to

gain ground in another high-stakes trade fight, Business Roundtable

spokesperson John Schacter emphasizes that goTRADE was determined not to

lose support during that period. ’That was a key turning point,’ says

Schacter, ’because we gained votes and did not lose a single member who

was for or leaning toward PNTR.’

The US Chamber of Commerce and other business organizations mounted

similar grass-roots efforts. But the key factor was that these efforts

were accompanied by strong message development. As political scientists

Burdett Loomis and Darrell West explain in their book, The Sound of

Money: How Political Interests Get What They Want, the ’ability to

develop persuasive story lines often determines the success of a group

in influencing politics and policy making.’

According to Calman Cohen, president of the Emergency Coalition for

American Trade, past campaigns involving trade tended to discuss only

the general economic benefits. This time, PNTR proponents emphasized the

potential benefits of trade to important economic sectors like the auto

industry and agriculture.

Tackling human rights

Those opposed to PNTR, meanwhile, stressed human rights issues. But BRT

parried this blow by issuing a report asserting that US business

operations in China had led to improved social, working and

environmental conditions.

Dissidents were featured in the advertising and news conferences

sponsored by BRT. ’There is no more powerful tool in China than trade

with America,’ one religious leader featured in a BTR advertisement


Ed Grefe, the president of Legislative Demographic Services, says that

this counterattack was an effective one. ’For the first time,’ says

Grefe, ’business has understood it needs to talk about philosophy in

addition to jobs. That makes it a more substantial case.’

Kusnet, a former Clinton White House speechwriter, thinks that ’the

opponents of PNTR won the debate but lost the vote.’ He explains: ’The

AFL, (House Democrat leaders) Richard Gephardt and David Bonior had with

the help of the grass-roots shifted the debate from one of

internationalism versus protectionism to one of what rules should there

be in an era of globalization.

If you shift the debate to that, we were in a battle for public


But sometimes public opinion doesn’t prevail.’

Polls produced varying results. A Peter Hart poll for the AFL-CIO

earlier this year showed 65% of Americans opposed to PNTR. An April 2000

Gallup Poll found a tight race. By the weekend before the vote, however,

public opinion had decisively shifted, with 56% in favor and 37%


Kusnet thinks the AFL-CIO and other PNTR opponents might have been more

effective if they had more money to spend on grass-roots endeavors. But

a labor PR consultant suggests that labor could have personalized its

messages by showing how NAFTA has hurt union members, then drawing the

same conclusion for China.

The invigorated pro-trade coalition made savvy use of grass-roots and PR

tactics to help carry the day on an important vote. But while it may

have won the battle, the trade war is by no means over. As Kusnet

insists, ’This is but one battle in a struggle that began with NAFTA,

continued with fast-track and the WTO in Seattle and will keep on

going.’ Both sides will no doubt see their PR and grass-roots organizing

tactics put to greater tests.

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