Astroturf - Mobilising Employees
Workers who can be persuaded that their jobs are at risk from some government action such as environmental regulation are an obvious source of grassroots support for corporations.
Grefe and Linsky argue that getting employees on side is not enough. They have to be activated—involved in political activity on the company’s behalf: “People on the assembly line are always more credible spokespersons than people in sterile corporate offices.” The model they refer to is that of Nationwide Insurance Company which has set up a Civic Action Program (CAP) for employees and agents. Volunteers are offered “speaker training, drills on how to make a call to a legislator or write him or her a letter, and information on the importance of being present at hearings at which issues are being debated.... Trips to Washington or a state capital are planned.”
CAP volunteers are also asked to fill out cards that indicate who they know among the political leadership and how well they know that person, what community-based associations they are members of, whether they have ever held office or are active in a political party, and other information that would prove helpful in the development of coalition grassroots activities...
Grefe and Linsky, don’t question the infringement of privacy this may involve nor how voluntary such activities can be for people dependent on their employers for a livelihood, promotion prospects and references. However, Stauber and Rampton, in their book on the PR industry, Toxic Sludge is Good For You! argue that this sort of employee mobilization “is in fact a top-down command system, under which employees are expected to vote and agitate not for what they as free citizens consider politically good or desirable but for the political interests of the company that employs them.”
Public affairs consultant, Gerry Keim points out that companies that direct their employees to write letters and lobby on their behalf are far less successful than those that give their employees a “deeper education... it is easy to induce employees to take political action with education”. Persuasion is better than coercion and that persuasion is much easier in a situation where the persuader is able to offer substantial rewards to those that will be persuaded. Grefe and Linksy note that a major key to the success of Nationwide’s program—46 percent of its 5000 agents and 50% of its 15,000 employees are actively involved in the CAP—is the ‘reinforcement’ that ‘volunteers’ get.
Keim notes that with the increasing use of grassroots campaigns and the growing cynicism about them on the part of politicians, the use of employees is particularly effective in ensuring that grassroots efforts have a genuine appearance. In fact, knowing that the employees are part of a grassroots program can have even more impact on a politician, because s/he knows that these voters will be kept informed of how the issues is progressing and reminded of how the politician voted when it comes to reelection time. One company sends politicians copies of the newsletters it distributes to employees to show “that educated and politically informed constituents are working for it.”
Nationwide pass on names of employees and agents willing to work on campaigns to local legislators: “a particularly powerful message when the candidate is an incumbent legislator seeking reelection. It’s a reminder that among the legislator’s constituents are many who also happen to be Nationwide employees or agents.” Such tactics are particularly effective in influencing politicians. As one politician said:
You can give me $1,000. That helps. But stimulate a number of your employees to volunteer for my campaign and, following my election, I’ll remember those who stuffed envelopes or walked precincts in my behalf long after I’ve filed the report on the contribution from your PAC.
Some companies also encourage their employees to attend ‘town hall’ and other meetings organised by politicians and to join local civic organisations that have influence in the community, and subsidise their membership of them. This enables the company to give presentations and discuss issues informally with other influential members of the community and thereby foster the support of ‘strangers’.
Grefe and Linsky surveyed 119 companies and found that 13 % had a key contact programme, 31 % put together grassroots coalitions “only on an ad hoc or as-needed basis” and 36% had an ongoing grassroots coalition with “activities in which their employees or members were involved in specific public affairs efforts.” Only 20% did no grassroots coalition work. Some corporations, such as Glaxo Pharmaceutical, have even utilised their sales forces in a political “outreach effort.”