Say, Don, what are you putting on your grass roots to make them so green?

Public relations professionals know that one of the best ways to influence public opinion and ultimately achieve changes in consumer behavior, including influencing legislation, is when citizens engage in “grass roots” action, forming activist groups and communicating with their elected officials and other public policy “influentials.”

Over the past several decades, a less honest form of grassroots campaigning has arisen, fueled by powerful interests trying to take advantage of the effectiveness of citizen voices. You see this whenever some group with a high-sounding name, like “Citizens for Good Government,” calls a press conference to complain about some issue. Only later do you discover that the grassroots organization is really being sponsored by some group that has exactly the opposite goal from what the name suggests. In PR, we call this an “AstroTurf” campaign or AstroTurfing. As we all know, AstroTurf does not really have grassroots.

It is artificial. But today, too many issues oriented campaigns are about capturing emotional reactions, not about having a real dialogue or conversation.

That’s why so many people are turned off to politics and issues. It’s more about who has the best sound bite, or whose army of young interns can get a blog entry posted more quickly, not about thoughtful debate over substantive issues. It’s about ridiculing your opponent before he/she makes fun of you. Look at all the video mashups of the Howard Dean post-election rally where he was trying to revv up his campaign workers, and his cheerleading scream was looped a million times to make him look unstable.

Today’s Wall Street Journal reports on a video lampooning Al Gore’s “Inconvenient Truth” movie.

The video, which has Gore brainwashing penguins and blaming global warming for making Lindsay Lohan lose weight, sounds very funny. But when the Journal tried to contact the purported “amateur” who created the animation, his email response to the Journal included IP address information that the Journal was able to trace to a computer owned by a Washington PR firm that has oil companies as its clients.

There’s nothing wrong with PR firms representing oil companies. There’s nothing wrong with PR firms proposing as part of a public dialogue points of view that differ with those of people who disagree with their clients.

But it impedes the channels of honest communications when firms create an impression of a grass roots activity where none exists.

The Public Relations Society of America, the largest professional organization of PR practitioners, has a Code of Ethics and Professional Standards that, among other things, appears to prohibit members from engaging in the creation of deceptive “AstroTurf” campaigns. The Code indicates that it would be improper conduct for a PRSA member to engage in (among other things) this kind of activity:

“Front groups: A member implements “grass roots” campaigns or letter-writing campaigns to legislators on behalf of undisclosed interest groups.”

In August 2004, PRSA’s Board of Ethics and Professional Standards issued a Professional Standards Advisory reminding members that creating unidentified “front” groups violated the code.

From what I can tell, the PR firm featured in the Journal article does not have any employees who are members of PRSA, so it is not subject to the provisions of the PRSA Code of Ethics and Professional Standards. That’s too bad.

Some other communications practitioners are beginning to voice the same opinion. Shel Holtz, ABC, Fellow, IABC, an A-list blogger and For Immediate Release podcast host, says in his blog entry on this topic, “Astroturfing has no place in any PR practitioner’s toolkit. It is deceptive, dishonest, unethical.”

It seems there is now a real grass roots campaign forming among PR professionals to make everyone involved in the communications business play by a set of ethical guidelines.

I hope this movement gets lots of care and feeding. If we don’t stand up for honest and ethical communications, we deserve all the negative impressions people have of PR as an occupation.

1 Comment

  1. Great post Steve, a truly thoughtful consideration of the topic.Thanks for supporting the anti-astroturfing campaign. I’ve added this post to the list of resources at the New PR wiki, and I look forward to reading further contributions to the debate from you.

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