Brin on 19 Aug 2009 06:40 pm
Thirteen. That’s the current number, as of yesterday, of fraudulent letters sent to members of Congress in an attempt to discourage support for a key energy and climate bill.
The letters were handiwork of a DC-based consulting firm, Bonner & Associates, which specializes in “innovative grassroots campaigns.” In case you’ve missed the string of players involved: the letters were manufactured by Bonner & Associates as part of their work for the Hawthorne Group. It turns out the Hawthorne Group was working for American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity (ACCCE), an opponent of the climate legislation.
Bonner & Associates’ President Jack Bonner has blamed the forged letters on a recently-fired “bad employee” and proclaimed outrage.
He’s not the only one.
More than a dozen “senders,” organizational leaders whose identities were used without their knowledge or consent, are pretty upset, too. So is Rep. Ed Markey (D-MA), co-author of the legislation at the center of the storm. Markey has launched an investigation into the forged letters. (Though thirteen fraudulent letters have been identified, dozens more await verification.)
However, the most audacious expression of outrage came from a small band of environmental activists known as the “Action Factory.”
These brazen demonstrators stood, nearly naked, outside the Bonner & Associates office building on a recent afternoon. Wearing little more than handmade signs of protest, they took to the street to draw attention to a despicable PR tactic known as “astroturfing.”
What is astroturfing?
It’s a PR tool most commonly employed by the lazy, unskilled, and unconnected. It’s also an underhanded and unethical practice.
According to Wikipedia: “In American politics and advertising, the term astroturfing describes formal public relations projects which deliberately seek to engineer the impression of spontaneous, grassroots behavior. The goal is the appearance of independent public reaction to a politician, political group, product, service, event, or similar entities by centrally orchestrating the behavior of many diverse and geographically distributed individuals.”
The basic idea is to manufacture the appearance that a grassroots movement is taking shape. Some resort to paying troops to generate propaganda. Even more disgraceful, some simply invent these troops or enlist them without asking permission.
Bonner & Associates is not the firm to resort to astroturfing, just the latest to learn the key lesson of this tacit: In an effort to gain ground, astroturfing can result in considerable and devastating loss. In this case, some have lost jobs (the “bad” employee), others have lost their cools (the many “outraged” participants), and a bold few have lost their shirts (the Action Factory team).
Most concerning of all, however, is the loss of credibility that astroturfing inflicts on the entire PR industry — especially when most communications professionals conduct their outreach, grassroots organizing, and coalition building activities with integrity.
As the count of forged letters grows and news about this astroturfing incident continues, Bonner & Associates is not the only firm affected. Ethical communications shops and legitimate grassroots advocacy organizations also suffer.
Winning public relations fight is no easy task, but adhering to the rules of battle is a critical professional responsibility. Astroturfing undermines both the valuable work of the public relations industry and the most vital tenants of our democracy — open and honest pubic debate.
In launching his investigation, Chairman Markey stated, “Democratic debate has been deceptively debased by fake facts and harsh rhetoric. We must return to an honest discussion of the issues, and ensure that this sort of campaign does not further poison the well of trustworthy debate.”
Let’s hope his words – not the threat of his investigations — can inspire an end to astroturfing.
This post has been edited.