Successful grassroots campaigns go beyond employees and ‘family’ to activate potential allies. Bruce Harrison (pictured), who specialises in environmental public relations, recommends to companies who have been attacked by an activist group to encourage their allies to speak to the press and to the activist group on behalf of the company. For this to be effective these allies—who might be business associates, friendly politicians or academics—need to be armed with the right information. “Put them on a mailing list and service them aggressively”.
The critical point is to immediately reduce or remove the ‘us vs. them’ element, the polarity of the one-on-one relationship. You’ll lose if it’s like this, because press and politicians will not get into the act unless they see others take your side.
It is important to enrol strangers because their views will have more weight with the general community since they are not seen as self-interested—as employees and others may be—and so they can “offer to the uncommitted community an endorsement that is seen as pure”, a third party endorsement.
Phil Lesly, author of a handbook on public relations and communications, advises organisations facing opposition to identify those whose viewpoints are different from their opposition—both those who share the views of the organisation and those who don’t agree with the opposition for other reasons. “Both can become your allies” he says. The aim in fostering allies is to give an impression that there is strong support for both sides of a controversy.
Consultant John Brady concentrates on what is known in the business as ‘grasstops’ lobbying which involves activating smaller numbers of more influential citizens to contact their local government representative. He has over a hundred ‘field operatives’ working for him throughout the country. These are people with contacts and political savvy who can identify 20-60 business people or respected citizens able to clearly present the client’s viewpoint on an issue. These people are then asked to contact the targeted politician, preferably with a visit or phone call.
Some firms run their own version of this sort of programme, known in the business as a ‘key contact approach’: “Each member of management is assigned one or more legislators or administrators—members of Congress, state legislators, governors or regulators—with whom they are expected to develop a relationship.” This personal relationship gives the firm access to government and sometimes influence in times of need.
Increasingly large corporations are turning to their own business networks for grassroots support. Such organisations have access to many potential allies through their own employees, shareholders, customers, suppliers and vendors. One of Burson-Marsteller’s directors told a gathering of British chemical industry leaders:
Don’t forget that the chemical industry has many friends and allies that can be mobilized... employees, shareholders, and retirees.... The industry needs an army of spokespeople speaking on its behalf...Give them the songsheets and let them help industry carry the tune.
Edward Grefe and Marty Linsky, in their handbook on “Harnessing the Power of Grassroots Tactics for Your Organization” point out that any corporation will have three potential constituencies for its grassroots efforts: ‘family’, ‘friends’ and ‘strangers’. Family are employees and shareholders, and perhaps their close families, “whose livelihoods depend on the organization’s success” so they have a strong economic interest and emotional commitment to the company. Friends are people who have less direct connections to the company but still have some sort of economic tie or common interest. These people would include customers, suppliers and trade associations.
By getting together in trade associations and federations, smaller businesses can help each other in the same way. The US Chamber of Commerce has 220,000 member businesses, trade associations, and local and state chambers of commerce and in 1993 it established its “Grassroots Action Information Network (GAIN) with state-of-the-art technology and networking capabilities.”
National Federation of Independent Businesses (NFIB) has 617,000 members. From these members it is able to construct a database of members classified into categories which include political backgrounds, position on particular issues and the extent to which they have been ‘activated’ in the past by direct mail approaches. The computer database is connected to laser printers and broadcast faxes. So when an issue comes up, the Federation can instantly contact and activate thousands of specially selected members or alternatively space out the contacts over a number of weeks to give the impression of a spontaneously growing public reaction.
In a speech to the American Mining Congress, Tamara Johnson of the Citizens United for a Realistic Environment, a mining workers group, said:
An inferno is advancing toward us at an alarming rate. It is primarily in the form of the preservationist movement and the political ramifications it brings with it.... Why have mining companies been losing the battle against this blaze? Because historically you have counted only on slick lobbyists in three-piece suits and upper-echelon management to get the message delivered.... We have discovered that by forming grassroots groups such as ours and then linking up with other groups which have similar goals and forming multi-sector coalitions, we indeed can become a force to be reckoned with.
One of the most successful grassroots campaigns utilising these multi-sector coalitions mobilised farmers, coal-miners, aluminium manufacturers, the natural gas industry and others to oppose Clinton’s proposed energy tax.