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 wide public 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 that there is wide public support for their client’s position.
This sort of operation was almost unheard of twenty years ago, yet in the US in the 1990s where “technology makes building volunteer organizations as simple as writing a check”, it became “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 specialise in these strategies, to run grassroots campaigns for them. Firms and associations utilising such services include Philip Morris, Georgia Pacific, the Chemical Manufacturers Association, General Electric, American Forest & Paper Assoc., Chevron, Union Carbide, Procter & Gamble, American Chemical Society, American Plastics Association, Motor Vehicle Manufacturers Association, WMX Technologies, Browning Ferris Industries and the Nuclear Energy Institute.
When a group of US electric utility companies wanted to influence the Endangered Species Act which was being reauthorised 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 grass-roots lobbying as a way to influence environmental debates.”
Artificially created grass roots 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.”
According to Consumer Reports magazine, those engaging in this sort of work in the mid 1990s could 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 a politician can’t ignore it and this means targeting potential supporters and targeting ‘persuadable’ politicians.