When a corporation wants to oppose environmental regulations, or support an environmentally damaging development, it may do so openly and in its own name. But it is far more effective to have a group of citizens or experts — and preferably a coalition of such groups — which can publicly promote the outcomes desired by the corporation while claiming to represent the public interest. When such groups do not already exist, the modern corporation can pay a public relations firm to create them.
The use of such ‘front groups’ enables corporations to take part in public debates and government hearings behind a cover of community concern. These front groups lobby governments to legislate in the corporate interest, to oppose environmental regulations, and to introduce policies that enhance corporate profitability. Front groups also campaign to change public opinion, so that the markets for corporate goods are not threatened and the efforts of environmental groups are defused.
The names of corporate front groups are carefully chosen to mask the real interests behind them but they can usually be identified by their funding sources, membership and who controls them. Some front groups are quite blatant, working out of the offices of public relations firms and having staff of those firms on their boards of directors.
The use of front groups to represent industry interests in the name of concerned citizens is a relatively recent phenomenon. In the past, businesses lobbied governments directly and put out press releases in their own names or those of their trade associations. The rise of citizen and public interest groups, including environmental groups, has reflected a growing scepticism among the public about statements made by businesses:
MANUFACTURING GRASS ROOTS
Front groups are not the only way in which corporate interests can be portrayed as coinciding with a greater public interest. Public relations firms are becoming proficient at helping their corporate clients convince key politicians that there is broad support for their environmentally damaging activities or their demands for looser environmental regulations. Using specially tailored mailing lists, field officers, telephone banks and the latest in information technology, these firms are able to generate hundreds of telephone calls and/or thousands of pieces of mail to key politicians, creating the impression of wide public support for their client’s position.
This sort of operation was almost unheard of ten years ago, yet in the U.S. today, where “technology makes building volunteer organizations as simple as writing a check,” it has become “one of the hottest trends in politics” and an $800 million industry. It is now a part of normal business for corporations and trade associations to employ one of the dozens of companies that specialize in these strategies to run grassroots campaigns for them.
When a group of U.S. electric utility companies wanted to influence the Endangered Species Act, which was being re-authorized to ensure that economic factors were considered when species were listed as endangered, their lawyers advised them to form a broad-based coalition with a grassroots orientation: “Incorporate as a non-profit, develop easy-to-read information packets for Congress and the news media and woo members from virtually all walks of life. Members should include Native American entities, county and local governments, universities, school boards… .” As a result of this advice the National Endangered Species Act Reform Coalition was formed, one of a “growing roster of industry groups that have discovered grassroots lobbying as a way to influence environmental debates.”
Artificially created grassroots coalitions are referred to in the industry as ‘astroturf’ (after a synthetic grass product). Astroturf is a “grassroots program that involves the instant manufacturing of public support for a point of view in which either uninformed activists are recruited or means of deception are used to recruit them.”(FN11) According to Consumer Reports magazine, those engaging in this sort of work can earn up to $500 “for every citizen they mobilize for a corporate client’s cause.”
Mario Cooper, senior vice president of PR firm Porter/Novelli, says that the challenge for a grassroots specialists is to create the impression that millions of people support their client’s view of a particular issue, so that a politician can’t ignore it; this means targeting potential supporters and targeting ‘persuadable’ politicians. He advises: “Database management companies can provide you with incredibly detailed mailing lists segmented by almost any factor you can imagine.”(FN13) Once identified, potential supporters have to be persuaded to agree to endorse the corporate view being promoted.
Specialists in this form of organizing use opinion research data to “identify the kinds of themes most likely to arouse key constituent groups, then gear their telemarketing pitches around those themes.”(FN14) Telephone polls, in particular, enable rapid feedback so that the pitch can be refined: “With phones you’re on the phones today, you analyze your results, you can change your script and try a new thing tomorrow. In a three-day program you can make four or five different changes, find out what’s really working, what messages really motivate people, and improve your response rates.”(FN15) Focus groups also help with targeting messages.
Demographic information, election results, polling results and lifestyle clusters can all be combined to identify potential supporters by giving information about people’s age, income, marital status, gender, ethnic background, the type of car they drive and the type of music they like. These techniques, which were originally developed for marketing products to selected audiences, are now used to identify likely political attitudes and opinions. In this way the coalition builders don’t have to waste their time on people who are unlikely to be persuaded, and at the same time can use different arguments for different types of people.
Source: Sharon Beder, ‘Public Relations’ Role in Manufacturing Artificial Grass Roots Coalitions – https://www.uow.edu.au/~sharonb/PR.html
TEDx talk from veteran investigative journalist and former CBS NEWS investigative reporter Sharyl Attkisson.
In this eye-opening talk, veteran investigative journalist Sharyl Attkisson shows how astroturf, or fake grassroots movements funded by political, corporate, or other special interests very effectively manipulate and distort media messages.
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