Environmental and public interest groups pioneered the use of printed postcards as an effective means of grassroots campaigning but as this method was adopted by corporations and as competition between various interest groups increased, politicians become more cynical of these grass roots lobbying techniques. They realised that “100,00 pre-printed postcards arriving within five days of one another may not be unilateral groundswell of democracy.” Postcards were soon replaced by form letters and then telegrams, faxes and phone calls.
As a result of advances in technology, the realization on the part of elected officials that form letters were merely a product of a relentless coordinated campaign (it only took Washington half-a-decade to figure this out), and because the public is demanding a more responsive government, the art of grassroots campaigning has advanced to a science.
The more personalised the communications the harder it is for the targeted politician to tell if it is a genuine, spontaneous expression of voter sentiment or an organised push by a corporation. And public relations people have become expert at faking the real thing. Davies, speaking at a conference on Shaping Public Opinion: If You Don’t Do It, Somebody Else Will, in Chicago, explained how his firm creates ‘personal’ letters for his clients, after gaining agreement from the person on the telephone:
If they’re close by we hand-deliver it. We hand-write it out on ‘little kitty cat stationery’ if it’s a little old lady. If it’s a business we take it over to be photocopied on someone’s letterhead. [We] use different stamps, different envelopes... Getting a pile of personalized letters that have a different look to them is what you want to strive for.
According to Edward Grefe and Marty Linsky in their book The New Corporate Activism, letters, particularly to state, county and city legislators, are especially influential because people at these levels seldom get more than one or two letters on any subject.
Even at the national level letters are important. A 1992 Gallop Poll found that over 70% of members of Congress said that they paid “a great deal of attention to (a) personally written letters from constituents, (b) meetings with heads of groups, (c) CEO visits representing companies with a job presence in the district, (d) personally written letters from heads of groups in the district or from company officials with a job presence in the district, and (e) phone calls from constituents.”
Another study of congressional staff found that 79% said that individually written letters were most effective form of grassroots campaigning, 64% said phone calls (64%) were most effective and letters and phone calls were more effective than public demonstrations and petitions, which were more effective than mass mail responses. When their estimates were averaged, respondents said that it would take 2035 mass mail responses to get a legislator to place a high priority on an issue, compared with 156 individually-written letters and 188 phone calls. In order to change their position on an issue, staff suggested it would take almost 20,000 mass mail responses compared to about 700 letters and 1500 phone calls.