Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Opinions are NOT Facts -- Especially in Advocacy!

I am often asked to be a guest on talk radio shows around the country, and I'm surprised that I tend to enjoy them very much. Sure, I get the occasional somewhat "controversial" host, but I find most hosts -- even those I don't really agree with -- to be generally thoughtful people. We talk about things like "Why Congress is Designed to be Completely and Totally Inefficient" and, of course, how citizens can be heard.

This morning, for example, I spoke with Troy Derengowski of WHON in Richmond, IN. While he and I don't really see eye-to-eye on whether people in Washington, DC work hard or want to do good for the country (I'll leave it to you to imagine who takes what position), I did feel that we had a good back and forth discussion.

It's unfortunate, then, that some callers on this and other shows do not want to offer the same level of courtesy and respect for other's opinions. For example, did you know that I'm a communist who is an apologist for Congressional efforts to eliminate habeas corpus and euthanize seniors? (sorry dad)

That some people would make such strange accusations doesn't surprise me, naturally, but it saddens me. Why are the same people who are "disgusted" by the rancor, bickering and partisanship in Washington, DC so willing to engage in the practice themselves? Why assume that people in DC are evil, terrible human beings bent on making life miserable for average citizens?

Their response would, of course, be "but the people in Washington, DC are evil, terrible human beings bent on making my life miserable." This, my friends, is an opinion. And, get this, opinions vary from person to person. Some people actually truly and honestly believe that single-payer health care systems and financial services reform are good things. It is not a fact that "everyone hates everything Congress is doing," to paraphrase one of the recent callers on a show. That is opinion and effective advocates will be very careful in differentiating between the two.

I may be titling at windmills here, but I'd encourage anyone hoping to engage in civil political discourse to heed to words of Evelyn Beatrice Hall (as she describes Voltaire's perspective) "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it."

In other words, everyone is entitled to have (and to express) their opinion. No one should be shouted down or prevented from sharing their views. And we all should be thankful for and protective of the right to express our opinion freely -- while recognizing others have the same rights as well.

Wouldn't it be nice to see our democratic discourse work like that? Wait, I think I see another windmill over there...

Friday, August 07, 2009

... And More on AstroTurfing

Sorry to anyone who is tired of fake grassroots, but it's just such a hot topic lately. Today's Post had an article about how UPS employees were forced to lobby against FedEx. The article suggests that rank-and-file UPS workers (drivers, office personnel, etc.) were told by their managers to send letters to members of Congress in support of more stringent labor rules for FedEx.

If true, this is certainly an example of astroturfing at its most egregious. Informing employees of an issue and allowing them to make their own decisions is one thing: sitting them down with a pen, paper, talking points and some not-so-veiled threats is entirely different. There is a right way to encourage employee and other citizen involvement in advocacy. What's described in this article is NOT it.

Perhaps even more significant is the fact that given how these letters were generated, I'm not even sure how effective they would be anyway! I mean, if you're going to strong arm employees in to writing letters you might as well have them be effective. Some key problems with these:
  • Umm, handwritten letters? So last century. Pieces of paper going to Washington, DC go through an irradiation process. They come out of that process brown, crunchy and smelling bad (not to mention 3 weeks late). Personalized e-mails or faxes are often a better way to go.
  • Apparently managers told employees to choose from a few "key arguments" that they were to copy verbatim. A more effective letter would incorporate personalized arguments and stories from the writer about how they've been harmed by the status quo and how the proposed policy change would benefit them.
  • Employees were apparently pulled from work activities and told to write these letters while on the job. While that's not illegal, it's certainly suspicious. Anyone wanting to solicit employee engagement should encourage them to participate in "off hours."
Again, engaging employees in legislative initiatives can be both effective and ethical. The key is to consider this work in the context of helping employees understand the issues and giving them the tools they need to participate should they choose to do so.
In short, follow these basic rules for better corporate advocacy -- Foster the efforts of your internal champions to tell a positive story, yes. Force people who don't want to be involved and don't want to write letters, no.

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

More on AstroTurf Lobbying

There's more on the recent "astro turf" lobbying scandal in the Washington Post today. Turns out it was the pro-coal "American Coalitions for Clean Coal Electricity" who hired Bonner and Associates to generate grassroots / grasstops support for changes to the climate change legislation. The ACCCE did not, obviously hire the firm to do fake letters, but to me this just demonstrates what happens when organizations focus almost exclusively on the NUMBER of letters going to the hill on an issue as opposed to the QUALITY. In this case, at least 12 of the 47 or so letters generated by Bonner were fake. That's a 25% fake-to-real ratio.

Nothing excuses the firm in question or the staff person who allegedly put together these fake letters. But would this have happened if someone had said "hey, we don't care about the number of communications. We just want to be sure they come from people who really feel strongly about this issue?" The truth is that just one high quality, thoughtful communication will have more of an impact on a legislator than 10 or 20 or 100 luke warm communications -- no matter whose name is on the letterhead.

The practice at Bonner and Associates (according to some bloggers) appears to be the opposite. Clearly, the premium is on getting as many letters out as possible without regard for their accuracy or adhering to the basic principles of enhancing true citizen communication with Congress.

The silver lining here is that this demonstrates to me that generating grassroots / grasstops support for an issue CAN be a useful tactic for advocay success if done right. And by done right, I mean focusing on helping truly engaged citizens connect in a meaningful way with legislators. I do not mean making stuff up.

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Astroturf Ruins it for the Rest of Us!

There's a debate going on in Washington, DC (and has been for years) on whether so-called "grassroots lobbying" efforts should be included in lobbying disclosure regulations. This issue has come up again most recently in the context of organized grassroots campaigns, where an organization hires a company to generate grassroots communications into an elected official's office (full disclosure: our firm frequently helps organizations run these kinds of campaigns).

Sometimes a bad actor (or two or two hundred), generates grassroots communications that are less than genuine -- and gets caught, as noted in this Sunlight Foundation blog post. There's no way to defend this practice, of course. The whole POINT of grassroots organization is to inspire the delivery of quality, relevant and, most important, personalized communications from constituents. It is NOT to send fake communications in to a legislator's office. Not only is that unethical, it's not even effective. So why do it?

However, I do not think that the fact that there are some bad actors should automatically mean that anyone who does any grassroots lobbying should register. Naturally I would think that: it's in my firm's best interest not to have to go through the hassle of registering.

But, it's more than that. Believe it or not, I think that the vast majority of organized grassroots campaigns have honorable intentions. In most cases, their main goal is to give citizens the tools they need to connect in a meaningful way with their elected officials on issues those citizens truly care about. This, to me, is a practice that should be encouraged, not discouraged.

The problem with requiring some sort of registration for these types of campaigns is that if the net is cast too wide, such a requirement might limit true citizen participation in the political process. Imagine the citizen advocate who wants to rally people in his or her neighborhood to argue for (or against) health care reform. They decide to show people what to do, set up a "do it yourself" website and make some flyers to encourage people to attend townhall meetings. Should that person be required to register as a "grassroots lobbyist?" What if they take small donations of $20 bucks per person to defray expenses? Or hire a web consultant to help them put together a website? Would other people be less likely to participate if they thought they had to register with a government entity?

Sure, there are a lot of big players out there, some of whom are spending millions of dollars on these efforts (not with us, unfortunately :)). But how do you draft language that gets at just the "big guys" and leaves the smaller, citizen-based coalitions alone?

It seems to me that the danger of limiting citizen participation is much higher when it comes to registration requirements for grassroots campaigns. Therefore, it makes significantly more sense to tread much more lightly, to combat bad actors where they are found, and to redouble our efforts to encourage open and honest citizen to government communication.