Astroturf is bad for football players and baseball players, who tend to injure themselves on artificial surfaces more often and more seriously than they do when playing on grass. But it can trip up PR people too.The Astroturf phenomenon is back in the headlines because of a letter-writing campaign apparently orchestrated by someone in the US military. In response to media stories emphasizing the problems in Iraq, letters began to appear in local newspapers around the country. The letters, signed by ordinary soldiers, described the accomplishments of the occupation - efforts to reestablish police and fire departments, build water and sewer plants - and claimed the local population was supportive of the troops' efforts. The only problem with the letters was that they were all the same - a fact that emerged when one newspaper, The Olympian, received two identical letters signed by two different soldiers. An investigation revealed that most of the soldiers had signed the letters, but not written them. (One soldier did not remember even signing the letter.) It's hard to believe that an effort so inept was conducted or condoned by public affairs professionals. More likely, it was the work of an over-zealous and not-too-bright soldier. But it shows why a practice that's become almost pervasive should be shunned by practitioners who believe integrity is important to their ability to operate. I'm familiar with all the arguments for such campaigns: that they help people who don't have enough time communicate directly with their government; that since people sign the letters and therefore clearly agree with their content, there's nothing misleading. Those defenses are hollow. The practice is fraudulent, misleading, and has no place in an industry with any standards. One of the reasons letter-writing campaigns are used is because letters are perceived - or intended to be perceived - as more powerful expressions of opinion than merely signing a petition. That perception stems from the fact that writing a letter requires a citizen to consider an issue carefully enough to express his or her thoughts on it, and to take the time and effort to sit down and commit those thoughts to paper. But mass letter-writing campaigns require no such effort. In fact, they are an attempt to gain the force and credibility of a letter while requiring the effort and commitment of a petition. If the intent is not to mislead, then why not submit a petition? And the overall effect is to undermine the credibility of people who really are passionate enough about an issue to write their own letters - and thus to subvert democracy, which may of course be the whole idea. Paul Holmes has spent the past 16 years writing about the PR business for publications including PRWeek, Inside PR, and Reputation Management. He is currently president of The Holmes Group and editor of www.holmesreport.com.