Getting to the Root of Astroturf

02 Sep, 2009

By Doug Pinkham
Public Affairs Council President

September 2, 2009

Last week’s post about Astroturf prompted a bit of discussion. One reader, noting that the term “is losing validity in an increasingly sophisticated world,” got me thinking that the news media, bloggers and politicians need a primer on political involvement strategies. That’s because there is wide spectrum of political practices being used in issue campaigns. Most are perfectly acceptable and don’t deserve the criticism they’ve received, some are questionable, and a few are disgraceful.

I’ll start with the most egregious ones, move to those that are problematic but occasionally defensible, and then supply a list of common strategies that are not only legitimate – they are some of the most important tools available for political action in a democracy.

First, here’s my “Dictionary of Dubious Political Behaviors:”

Astroturf – Sending fake communications or using someone’s name and contact information in correspondence without their permission.  Always wrong. No exceptions.

Front Groups – Supporting public policy groups that don’t disclose their sources of funding and pretend to have a wide base of support. This approach is especially shameful if the group only has a few, deep-pocketed funders. In most cases it’s not only more ethical for a group to be transparent about its financial supporters – it’s also a lot smarter. Launching a “front group” in the age of the Internet is essentially daring an army of bloggers and journalists to see who can produce a list of co-conspirators the fastest.

Misrepresentation – Pretending to be a regular, concerned citizen when you are actually an employee or agent of an advocacy group, firm or political party. This is about deceiving people. It’s not illegal, but it’s not right. Politicians do this when they seed an audience with supporters who lob them softball questions.  But the practice is more serious when public opinion is swayed by inauthentic voices. Examples would include speakers at town halls who are paid to attend or are flown in from national headquarters, or celebrities who go on the talk show circuit to support a cause without disclosing that they are being compensated. If you’re a political activist, there’s nothing wrong with belonging to a certain interest group or working for a certain company – you simply ought to let your audience know.

Nondisclosure – Communicating about a policy issue without disclosing that you have a vested interest in the outcome (through employment, investment or some other connection).  Nondisclosure is similar to misrepresentation, but often there is no intent to deceive. Your support for the issue may be genuine, but a reasonable person could argue that your financial stake in the matter helped shape your opinion. This practice ranges from the bad (a real estate developer promotes an urban revitalization plan without revealing that he has a huge financial stake in the project) to the benign (a politician argues for a position that might indirectly benefit her brother-in-law’s business). My feeling is you’ll build credibility if you disclose these ties in the first place – before your political opponents do.**

Needless to say, this is not a complete list. But I think I’ve hit the general categories. And I hope readers can see that Astroturf is the worst of the bunch, because it is essentially fraud. Fortunately, it rarely happens.

Now, let’s move on to political involvement strategies that don’t deserve the criticism they’ve received in the media and by political partisans (who, by the way, engage in the same practices). This is a “Dictionary of Sensible Political Practices:”

Grassroots – A political movement based on community or constituent support. Our society has a long history of political change originating from the grassroots (the anti-Vietnam War protests, the civil rights movement). The question is whether it’s appropriate to organize other people behind your cause, or whether true grassroots must somehow happen spontaneously.

Those in the “spontaneous” camp need to remember that every grassroots campaign has its organizers. The spark may be one savvy person (like Jody Williams of the International Campaign to Ban Landmines) or a group able to motivate a large number of followers (like AARP on the healthcare issue). Grassroots campaigns, when conducted ethically, help democracy because they allow large groups of people – on all sides of the issue – to be heard.

Grasstops – Organizing groups of influential people who share a common cause. Grasstops campaigns emphasize quality over quantity. When an environmental group brings together scientists, local politicians and Hollywood celebrities to lobby Congress for tougher clean air laws, that’s a form of grasstops advocacy. Similarly, when an energy company wants to build a new power plant and reaches out to local government officials, civic leaders and union heads for support, they are focusing on grasstops rather than grassroots.

Ally Development – Enlisting the help of other organizations with whom you share the same policy goals. U.S.-based human rights groups form alliances with international rights organizations. A tech company that makes energy-saving devices joins forces with a conservation organization. A gun-control group reaches out to a law enforcement association. As long as the relationship isn’t coercive, there’s nothing wrong with making friends so you can influence people.

Coalitions – Creating an informal organization that coordinates and uses the resources of its members to achieve a public policy goal. Many organizations form coalitions because they can’t reach consensus within their trade associations, or they see advantages to working daily with non-profits, companies and others with similar objectives. Coalitions are an efficient way to broaden support for a cause across divergent constituencies.

There are many legitimate ways to advocate for or against an issue. So, what makes for an acceptable political practice? It comes down to honesty and openness. Honesty should be non-negotiable, and most political players pass that test. Keep in mind, however, that honesty in political communication doesn’t guarantee that everyone will have their facts right. That’s where the media and other watchdog groups play an extremely important role – checking to see if an advocate’s arguments hold up under scrutiny.

Openness is clearly desirable, but it’s a bit tougher to apply to all situations (which is why it’s also tough to regulate). There are times when a company or advocacy group may not be comfortable with complete transparency.  For example, companies are guarded about releasing proprietary business information, and no one wants to give away their political strategies. But in most cases it’s better to lean toward openness. It’s what the public expects. When people already don’t trust politics and politicians, you’ll gain more support for your cause by disclosing who you are, what issues you support and why.

Agree? Disagree? Email me here.


** Seems a bit incongruous to advocate transparency without a proper full-disclosure statement.  So here goes:

The Public Affairs Council is a non-partisan, non-political organization for public affairs professionals. We have approximately 550 member organizations, 70 percent of which are large corporations. Other members include trade associations, public interest groups, consulting firms and other interested parties.  You can read a current membership list here.  We also conduct training programs on subjects such as ethics/compliance, issues management, political involvement and global public affairs.  We sponsor several major conferences each year, including a National Grassroots Conference, a National PAC Conference and a Corporate Community Involvement Conference.

In other words, we clearly have a vested interest in this conversation about grassroots and Astroturf. On the other hand, because we focus on the political process and don’t pick sides, we think we might actually know what we’re talking about.