Grassroots PR Activists Swap War Stories

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This article was first published as They're Rich, They're Powerful and They're Running Scared"in PR Watch, Volume 4, No. 1, First Quarter 1997. It original article was authored by John Stauber and Sheldon Rampton and is used here with permission. As with all SourceWatch articles, feel free to edit and revise.

They're Rich, They're Powerful and They're Running Scared

On February 9-13, 1997, more than 200 of corporate America's top "political affair officers" (PAOs) came together with their favorite PR gunslingers to talk "grassroots" strategy and tactics.

Sponsored by the powerhouse Washington, D.C.-based Public Affairs Council (PAC), the annual "National Grassroots Conference for Corporate and Association Professionals" took place at the luxurious oceanside Marriott Casa Marina Resort in Key West, Florida. As in the past, the conference was expensive and exclusive. Not a single word about the event appeared in the local or the national press. Participants paid $1,200 a head to attend, plus lodging.

Attire was casual and conversation candid amid the mid-winter tropical surroundings. The assembled corporate ambassadors met formally in workshops and mingled informally over cocktails and dinner, enjoying free pina coladas and margaritas at a beachfront wet bar provided by conference organizers. The relaxed atmosphere made an odd counterpoint to the deadly serious themes under discussion. The assembled corporate ambassadors made it clear that the current challenges of "managing public opinion" while "maintaining market share" is a risky business indeed.

"The public has turned against corporate America now more than at any time since the 1960s," observed leading Republican Party consultant Frank Luntz in a confidential memo last summer. "This time the frustration and anger stretches well into the middle class and up through white collar and middle level management," Luntz added. "The public does not have much time or tolerance for your side of the story. . . . So you had better improve your communication from now on.

As every corporate lobbyist and PAO officer now understands, the public is increasingly unhappy with the consequences of corporate "bottom line" behavior--consequences such as layoffs, forced production speedups, union busting, deregulation, wage and benefits cuts, reductions in government services, unravelling consumer and environmental safeguards, economic and racial polarization, global sweatshops, monopolization and price fixing.

Eighty percent of workers have seen their incomes drop or stagnate over the past 15 years. Opinion polls show that 69% are concerned about "worsening social problems resulting from growing numbers of poor people," and many believe "the free market system is not fair." Seventy-nine percent believe that the government is "run by a few big interests looking out for themselves. . . . 59% said there was not a single elected official today that they admired." Forty-six percent believe that the middle class is being hurt by "corporate greed."

The cautionary message of Key West is that corporate "astroturf" is wearing thin. The artificial, orchestrated tactics of astroturf campaigns have lost some of their novelty and punch. The manufactured spin, media buys, front groups, mass-broadcast faxes, telemarketing-generated petitions, postcards, form letters, and Limbaugh-inspired "dittohead" phone calls are no longer sufficient.

"Front groups are beginning to wear out their welcome. Increasingly they are being 'outed' by legitimate activists. And clients are getting smarter," complained the December 1996 issue of Impact, PAC's monthly newsletter.

The PR profession, founded for the purpose of containing and controlling public opinion, is finding that its own professional image has recently suffered significant collateral damage due to unprecedented media exposure and populist backlash, thanks in part to the recent well-publicized antics of sleazeball campaign consultants such as Dick Morris and Ed Rollins--the "Ed and Dick show," in the rueful words of APCO Associates astrotruf wizard Neal Cohen.

"Corporate grassroots programs are under fire," Cohen admitted in a speech to the Key West conference, "and we have brought that fire on ourselves. . . . As our craft comes under increasing scrutiny, we suffer guilt through association," Cohen intoned rather mournfully. Dressed appropriately in black pants and black sport shirt, he delivered a preachy call for PR practitioners to "remove the mystery," "cast accurately and present all viewpoints," "be true to ourselves," and "follow the law."

Cohen himself, of course, is a notorious practitioner of manipulative grassroots techniques including the creation of deceptive front groups for the tobacco and insurance industries (see PR Watch, v. 3, #3). His ethical advice at Key West provoked dead silence in the meeting hall, followed by awkward, sparse applause. After failing to generate any significant questions or feedback from the reticent and visibly nervous audience, he abruptly ended his sermon 15 minutes early and walked out.

Enemies Everywhere

The three main threats mentioned most frequently at Key West were trade unions ("big labor"), trial lawyers (who sue corporations) and the news media.

"The red-alert for the corporate community was the AFL-CIO's much publicized commitment to spend $35 million of its members' dues in support of anti-business, pro-labor candidates," complained the October 1996 issue of Impact, PAC's monthly newsletter.

Corporations fear the news media because they believe that it has become so ratings-conscious and sensationalistic that it is literally "out of control." As Jim McAvoy from Burson-Marsteller put it, "If it bleeds, it leads." (McAvoy should know. He's the PR brains behind the American Legion's "Citizens Flag Alliance," seeking to limit the Bill of Rights in a hyped-up campaign to end the "menace" of flag-burning.)

Facing intense competition for audience share, media organizations are willing to run stories with popular appeal, even when they present big business interests in an unfavorable light. The PR practitioners at Key West worried that this media environment, combined with today's cynical public mood, creates opportunities for its enemies--unions, trial lawyers, the environmentalists, and "NIMBY" groups--organized citizens who are the real grassroots.

Finally, corporate PR operatives fear that their own innovative use of ever-more-affordable information technology--e-mail, patch-through 800 lines, sophisticated polling, broadcast faxes, internet web sites--could become a double-edged sword used against them.

Because of these factors, the political trench warfare of the future will undoubtedly involve even more sophisticated grassroots campaigning, media management, and lobbying--both by big business and its opponents.

As corporations seek to deflect and contain a potential explosion of populism, they are increasingly driven to "manage public perceptions."

As WKA Communications stated in a brochure distributed at Key West, "We'd Rather Guard the Border Than Fight the War."

"If you don't keep an ear to the ground, or ignore what you hear, the results aren't pretty," the brochure states. "In terms of time, energy and cost, the difference between early-stage issues management and late-stage crisis management is the difference between guarding a border and fighting a war. It's easier and less expensive to influence an outcome before the government has written the law or regulation."

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