SL7 Interview’s UCLA Prof. EDWARD T. WALKER, Author of New Book: Grassroots for Hire

Grassroots hire

Grassroots Lobbying has become a billion dollar industry leaving its mark on our American Democracy. Surprisingly, there’s little-to-no authoritative research and writing on the consultants who specialize in this field. However, author and UCLA Professor Edward T. Walker pulls back the curtain of consultant driven grassroots initiatives in his new book, Grassroots for Hire: Public Affairs Consultants in American Democracy.

Slevin Disclosure: For more than two decades, I have organized and executed “grassroots lobbying” campaigns advancing client interests in the War on Terror, tort reforms, health care reforms, tax reforms, insurance reforms, real estate development, hostile takeovers and ballot box initiatives/candidate elections. I’m part of the industry that Prof. Walker addresses in his book and interview.

SLEVIN: Prof. Walker I enjoyed reading your new book, Grassroots for Hire, and appreciate you taking the time to educate our readers on this consultant-driven field. As an Associate Professor of sociology at UCLA, what led you to study grassroots lobbying and what surprised you the most in the research you did in preparing for the book?

Walker: Thanks very much for taking the time to read the book and engage with its ideas and findings.

When I started this project, I was looking for a way to understand the role of professionals in advocacy and social movements today. A fortunate moment came about a decade ago, when I stumbled upon the Campaigns & Elections “Political Pages” directory, which included sub-listings for grassroots lobbyists. I went and read the best work in political science on the topic, including influential books by Kollman and Goldstein, and found those books very impressive but they didn’t say much about the professionals who organize grassroots participation. And sociologists were generally unaware of the ways that firms and industries mobilize support among activist groups. Given all of this, I was excited about studying grassroots lobbyists, and that interest has driven a lot of my work in the years since.

My background is as a scholar who studies advocacy processes, organizations, and social movements. This project originally started as a doctoral dissertation, and I was working with John McCarthy, who pioneered the “resource mobilization” perspective on social movements and advocacy organizations. He was among the first to point out, in a series of classic works from the 1970s, that organizations working for social change, even though more likely to emerge from disadvantaged members of society, nonetheless usually need to form organizations, raise funds, and develop professional leaders in order to make change. This pointed to the importance of professional organizers and staffers in social change efforts.

 

SLEVIN: Why do corporate interests retain grassroots consultants? Isn’t hiring inside, traditional lobbyists enough to influence public officials and policies?

Walker: It’s an interesting question. The research in my book suggests that firms and industry groups often find that they need to take a multi-pronged approach to winning influence, just like other advocacy causes do. On issues that are very technical or obscure – sometimes these are called “quiet politics” issues, such as federal regulations on rules about “markets for corporate control” – it might not make sense to involve the mass public in participatory efforts. But on other issues that members of the general public either already understand well (or can be made to understand), industry groups often feel strongly compelled to get the public involved, and for good reason. You could take any number of issues today that are anything but “quiet politics” for firms: the recent effort by the NFL to support its game blackout policy by organizing the Protect Football on TV campaign, AirBnB’s Fair to Share campaign, and the massive telecom lobbying efforts earlier this summer over proposed Net Neutrality rules. All three of these issues involve things that the mass public knows enough about to chime in on: issues related to football games and ticket prices, whether they should be allowed to rent out their home without registering as a hotel-like entity, or any number of charged issues about access to the internet.

So, it’s true that traditional lobbyists can have an influence on these issues, of course. And the vast majority of policy battles that use outside lobbying also do some inside lobbying, even if not with the same consultant (or maybe they do that part in-house). But on high-stakes issues that seriously affect a firm or industry and when the issue isn’t just a technical matter, adding additional “ground game” support often makes a lot of sense.

SLEVIN: In Chapter 4, you interviewed Phil Frederick, a well-known DC consultant who talked about the trend toward “Grasstops” (quality) versus “Grassroots” (quantity). Later in your book, you write about thought leaders who are already known for being political activists. Please describe a typical thought leader and why grassroots consultants value their advocacy?

Walker: This is actually a long-standing area of interest in the social sciences, going back at least to a classic book from 1955 by Katz & Lazarsfeld, called Personal Influence. A key idea is that processes of interpersonal influence are often mediated by opinion leaders, who have an outsized influence on others because of their status in a community. We also know from a lot of organizational research that adoptions of new practices by high-status businesses tend to be rather contagious for other firms, especially for those that are in the middle of the pack. It’s also worth mentioning that Malcolm Gladwell picks up these ideas in his book The Tipping Point.

The consultants in my book varied considerably in how they think about this, as you correctly point out. Some, like Phil Frederick, value this “grasstops” approach. PR leaders going back to Edward Bernays have argued that opinion leaders are a very desirable audience to get on board, because their actions may inherently recruit others in support of the campaign. Associational leaders are often the prototypical type here. They can usually get their constituents to support an effort, and in many more professionalized associations, leaders may just speak for the group without consulting the mass members; of course, this is a risky thing for those leaders to do. But from the perspective of this consultant, this may still have short-term benefits.

Other consultants just look to get large numbers of people involved, and pay less attention to the status of those individuals. The deciding factor is the structure of the policy in question. On ballot measures, for instance, often it’s just a matter of gathering sufficient numbers of signatures. On more complex regulatory matters, the specific content of communications matter more, and opinion leaders may be better at getting that message across.

Still, nearly all consultants I talked with described a second key issue: the trade-off between targeting those who are most likely to say “yes” (these are usually those with a history of activism, and they often have more access to resources), and those that make for somewhat surprising constituencies who no one expected would join the campaign. The latter group is usually harder to get involved, and so consultants usually focus more of their time and effort on the first group.

SLEVIN:  In chapter 7 you address “Astroturf” grassroots campaigns. Unfortunately, there are too many professionals who operate Astroturf campaigns. What does Astroturf mean and what did your research determine on its effectiveness?

Walker: I try to be careful about using the term “astroturf,” since it often gets used by any political interest that sees its opponents as illegitimate.

I think that the term is best understood as referring to any one of these three characteristics: (1) participants are heavily incentivized for their participation (especially through a material reward), (2) participants are expressing sentiments that are not their own, or there is fraud or forgery involved in misrepresenting citizen communications, (3) the campaign willfully conceals that the cause has a very small group of well-heeled patrons, making it appear that the campaign is a completely independent and spontaneous citizen movement. Although astroturfing often backfires when any of these three characteristics is revealed, the practice is nonetheless surprisingly common. It’s also worth mentioning that professional associations in the field, such as the Public Relations Society of America, have come out against astroturfing, especially when it involves fraud.

Most members of the public do not believe these are acceptable practices, and I find in the book that most cases that engage in these strategies end up backfiring on the firms and consultants that sponsor them. In the book, I highlight the Working Families for Wal-Mart case as a classic case in which such heavy-handed tactics harmed the firm and consultants involved. Beyond the book, I’m now doing a series of experiments to test public reactions to astroturf campaigns, and the results suggest that these backfire effects are not only severe for specific firms, but they negatively affect overall public trust in all advocacy groups and businesses.

The book also calls attention to cases in which firms that were more transparent about their work were actually more effective in winning deeper and more consequential public support.

SLEVIN:  In your book, Grassroots for Hire you looked at whether grassroots lobbying improved public participation efforts for political engagement. Please share your findings to include the consequences on our American Democracy?

Walker: The major finding of the book on this count is that consultants, as rational actors, are generally somewhat selective in which citizens they target for activism. They don’t want to waste their time going after people who will just ignore them. But what this does is amplify the voice of people who are already most active in the U.S. political system, even if it may help consultants’ client win their issue of the day. So, even if this can help consultants in many short-run battles, in the long-run it’s harmful to American democracy.

That’s not to say that it has to be that way. In fact, a secondary finding of the book is that consultants sometimes gain advantages by recruiting – as I mentioned above – “surprising” constituencies. Doing this doesn’t just mean a form of tokenism. I think that it’s possible for consultants to work in a more transparent way that follows from some of the strategies of other kinds of grassroots organizers, looking to improve the voice of those who often aren’t usually recruited into political participation. This can help both the specific campaign and limit the representational problem described above.

SLEVIN:  In 2010, the U.S. Supreme Court made a landmark ruling in the Citizens United vs. Federal Elections Commission case. The decision held that the U.S. government is not permitted under the First Amendment to restrict independent political expenditures by corporations and labor unions. You write in your book that this opened the flood gates for grassroots lobbying, specifically the usage of 501(c)4 organizations. Can you explain how C4’s work and how it helps consultants in grassroots lobbying?

Walker: I think that the main impact is that consultants are seeing a lot more revenue coming in from advertising expenditures by these c4 organizations. And groups that specialize in demographic data and ad targeting also seem to be benefitting.

SLEVIN: Of all the corporate grassroots lobbying campaigns you’ve studied over the years, what was the one that stood out to you the most and why?

Walker: The case that I’ve learned the most from is the Canadian National Railway campaign that I describe in Chapter 7. Without going through all of the details again here, the basic story is that CN wanted to purchase the Elgin, Joliet, and Eastern Railway in Chicago a few years ago, so that they could route more of their Chicago-area traffic away from the gridlocked central-city rails and through the suburbs instead. But they needed regulatory approval for the purchase, and a lot of suburban activists started protesting because they didn’t want higher rail volume going through their backyards. So CN worked with a public affairs firm to locate a constituency that might have been overlooked: the community members from central Chicago who would stand to benefit if rail volume in their area declined. So they did some relatively transparent outreach to those community members and enlisted their support. Many of the themes of those recruitment efforts came across in the ultimate regulatory decision approving the deal. I think this case tells us a lot about the relationship between firms, consultants, local community members, and the policy process.

SLEVIN:  What do you hope your readers will take away from reading your book and what has been the response since it was rolled out this past May?  

Walker: The response has been one of considerable interest, I think, given that there hasn’t yet been any other systematic study of this field. I don’t think that most social scientists even know that this is an active area of work for consultants, let alone that it’s relatively well established.

Now that the book is out there, I’ve found that whenever there is a case in which professionals are supporting public participation in some way, other scholars and journalists tend to connect those cases to the ones in my book. And I think the book raises a lot of new questions about how best to understand the role that firms and industries play in mobilizing advocacy. In that sense my goal is to widen the lens of how we understand mass participation in the contemporary environment.

SLEVIN:   Thank you Prof. Walker for sharing your time with my readers.

Walker: Thanks very much, Patrick.

To buy a copy of Grassroots for Hire, you can click HERE.

You can follow Prof. Edward T. Walker on Twitter: @EdwardWalker

For more information on Prof. Walker you can click HERE.

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Patrick Slevin is a writer, blogger, OCR racer and a PR pro who heads SL7 Communications, an integrated public relations consulting firm. Over the last two-decades, Patrick has successfully engaged stakeholders as a Florida mayor, Fortune 500 corporate manager, national association regional director and international agency executive. His unique and diversified experience in political, corporate, government and agency communications offers clients a greater degree of efficacy in strategic counsel and campaign performance.  He has developed and executed strategies, corporate campaigns and grassroots operations advancing the bottom line interests of clients in markets across the United States.

Patrick can be reached for a confidential inquiry at 850.597.0423 or email pslevin68@gmail.com.

JAVA RELATIONS: Perk Up Your Law of Attraction

THE ART OF THE COFFEE MEETING REQUIRES A SPECIAL SET OF BRUSHES WHEN IT COMES TO CREATING NEW BUSINESS DEVELOPMENT AND NETWORKING OPPORTUNITIES. HOW YOU APPROACH THE MEETING AND WHAT YOU EXPECT TO TAKE AWAY FROM IT, WILL DETERMINE THE GRAVITY OF YOUR OWN LAW OF ATTRACTION. I PERK UP MY COFFEE MEETINGS WITH THE BEST PRACTICES I CALL J.A.V.A. (JOIN, ATTRACTION, VENUE AND AUTHENTIC). THEY ARE MY BRUSHES FOR SUCCESSFULLY EXPANDING MY NETWORK OF CONTACTS, FRIENDS AND OPPORTUNITIES FOR A REWARDING JOURNEY IN LIFE.

Coffee 3

COFFEE IN HAND

Last week, I got an early morning call on my cell from an out-of-state number I didn’t recognize. It was a corporate executive asking me, point blank, if I was available to help with a multi-million dollar project that was in trouble.

I recalled that we had met over coffee a few years ago when I traveled to his city to meet with a client. I asked him with such a project, he surely had an agency of record and an A-team of consultants, so why was he interested in retaining my services from Tallahassee? Note: Half of my clients and their projects are outside of Florida, but I wanted to know what cued this call.

He explained that he had a special dinner the night before with key project leaders and partners. My name was unexpectedly brought up by an ally who encouraged this executive to engage my special grassroots public relations services.

 

Up to that point, neither one knew the other had known me, so it was an affirmation. The ally’s unexpected recommendation, coupled with our coffee meeting, created enough efficacy for the executive to reach out beyond his cadre of consultants.

After the call ended, I got a fresh cup of coffee and reviewed my notes. As I sipped on some java, it occurred to me that I wouldn’t be engaging this project, if it wasn’t for coffee meetings!!

As I thought more about it, many of my business referrals and projects originated from ice-breaker coffee meetings and calls. The person who recommended me to the executive, I had met over coffee five months earlier.

This got me thinking about the art of the coffee meeting and I jotted down some best practices. I then had some fun and encapsulated them in my J.A.V.A. (Join, Attraction, Venue, Authentic) approach for successful coffee relations and its impact on the Law of Attraction.

GET SOME J.A.V.A.

JOIN: An invitation for a coffee meeting has a universal message to friends and strangers alike: It’s an informal, low expectation conversation that can be achieved in less than 30 minutes. In the context of meeting a new business contact, the invitation can be accomplished with an initial email.

In the email subject line, I put – Coffee Meeting Request.

My coffee meetings have been done around the nation. Whenever I have a business trip to say NYC or DC, I try to block some time to have coffee with people I haven’t seen in a while or new contacts I would like to meet.

In the email, I often lead with mentioning a mutual friend, which is always ideal. If we don’t have a shared network, I simply say, I’m visiting in your neck of the woods and would like to buy you cup of coffee and spend 20 minutes breaking bread…no strings attached.

No strings attached is very important. See Authentic.

The purpose of the coffee meeting is not to sell or pitch the person you’re inviting. Moreover, expecting an offer of business over a simple cup of coffee is self-serving and undermines the purpose of your coffee relations.

The goal of your inviting him/her is to put faces with names and establish potential relationships moving forward. In this digital age, a firm handshake and eye contact still stands out along with a rewarding conversation.

This is where Law of Attraction comes in.

Law of Attraction

ATTRACTION: The Law of Attraction is the latest definition of an age old and deeper philosophy that attempts to explain how we as a society are interconnected. Synchronicity, serendipity and luck play into this equation as well. The great majority of successful executives are positive thinkers; projecting positive thoughts and affirmations into the universe to create whatever edge they are seeking for themselves.

It’s very possible that your timely email invite may be playing a hidden role in this law of attraction.

Still, you need to proactively answer the question “why” this person should take 20 minutes out of her busy schedule to meet with you.

In my case, I simply state, “In this new economy it’s not who you know, but who knows you…you never know how we may be able to help each other in the future…it can only happen if we shake hands and share a coffee for 15-20 minutes.”

I follow that by briefly, very briefly, saying what I do and if they want more info they can click on a hyperlink to my LINKED IN profile.

Nearly nine out of 10 coffee meeting invites are favorably received and it becomes a matter of day and time, as well as the location.

VENUE: Coffee meetings are often in the windows of 930am to 11am and 2pm to 3pm. When, is often determined by, where. Typically, coffee meetings are located at a nearby coffee joint that’s easily assessable and convenient. Sometimes, the coffee meeting is in the office of your invitee or the conference room. Other times, the coffee meeting (lunches too), are “off the reservation”. Meaning, far enough away from the office where there won’t be any interruptions and/or the discussion can be unguarded and candid.

If the coffee meeting is outside the office, then be sure to arrive at least five to 10 minutes before to secure the best table for your conversation. Don’t be surprised if your guest is a few minutes late.

Authentic

AUTHENTIC: Most business development coffee meetings go nowhere and fail, which explains why some professionals don’t do them. If your motivation is to simply try to pitch or close a sale, then you’re wasting your time as well as the person you’ve invited.

I learned a long time ago, when I was a 27 year old mayor of a Tampa Bay city, that everyone has a unique story filled with life’s lessons. Moreover, I’ve also learned that if I meet someone for more than just a few minutes, that meeting has some relevance on our mutual journeys.

Therefore, I genuinely want to learn more about the person I’m meeting with regardless of who initiated the coffee meeting – me or them. You can find common areas of interest in 20 minutes and develop a rapport that plants the seeds for future follow ups and meetings. On many occasions, the 20 minute coffee meeting would go to 45 to 60 minutes.

Of course, there’s an exchange of our professional roles and goals, but only after a broader context of initial trust and respect have been established. If it doesn’t happen in 10 minutes or less, then both parties will be thankful they agreed to a short coffee meeting.

If you come to the meeting with a sincere desire to forge relations, then your coffee meeting should be mutually productive.

For example, I’m always curious to know why my guest chose his career path and what he hopes to accomplish. How does he view public relations in furthering his company’s goals and whether he sees his consultants as vendors or partners? I’m always asked about my experience as a Generation X mayor and how that experience underwrites my stakeholder engagement skills to this day.

Occasionally, I will get a referral or at least an offer to be introduced to another person who may be interested in my consulting services.

CONCLUSION:

It’s exciting to meet new people who are driven, successful and understand the degrees of separation gets smaller with the more contacts you make.

When I met with a president of a subsidiary of one of the world’s largest pharmaceutical companies, over coffee, I asked him what was his primary duty? He said, “I’m a salesman, promoting our company, our products and our employees…I can only accomplish that by meeting with people and exchanging information and building relationships.”

I learned from that coffee meeting that despite our titles, we are all selling ourselves to some degree. And we cannot do it alone or with a static network of contacts.

Coffee meetings have proven to be a rewarding forum for building and maintaining mutually beneficial relationships. If you approach your future coffee meetings with my J.A.V.A. best practices as a guide, then you will not only expand your network of contacts, but more importantly, enrich your life with dynamic people who share your drive to find satisfaction in life.

Don’t be surprised to receive a new business call out of the blue. Odds are you will be holding a cup coffee when it happens.

May J.A.V.A always perk up your new business coffee meetings.

Patrick Slevin is a writer, blogger, OCR racer and a PR pro who heads SL7 Communications, an integrated public relations consulting firm. Over the last two-decades, Patrick has successfully engaged stakeholders as a Florida mayor, Fortune 500 corporate manager, national association regional director and international agency executive. His unique and diversified experience in political, corporate, government and agency communications offers clients a greater degree of efficacy in strategic counsel and campaign performance.  He has developed and executed strategies, corporate campaigns and grassroots operations advancing the bottom line interests of clients in markets across the United States.

Patrick can be reached for a confidential inquiry at 850.597.0423 or email pslevin68@gmail.com.

SPEAKING in TONGUES in CRISIS: How to Integrate Corporate Communications & Government Relations

Leadership with education

In today’s digital age, public policy and public perception have become intertwined creating an uncertain landscape for large corporations. Product recalls, citizen referendums, agency contracts and regulations, activist boycotts and proposed federal/state legislation can threaten a corporation’s reputation, credibility and license to operate.

At the crossroads of this fluid and volatile environment are corporate communications and government relations. Unilaterally, these departments effectively champion the goals of the company, but when crisis forces a bilateral endeavor, more often than not, the effort exposes an internal Achilles’ heel that weakens a company’s ability to mitigate external threats.

Corporate leaders can overcome these internal silos by enacting three essential elements underwriting better practices that I call M.I.C. – Mediate, Integrate and Communicate. M.I.C. establishes a management structure that successfully integrates the best of corporate communications and government relations.

BREAKING DOWN SILOS

According to a 2011 study by the Foundation for Public Affairs, only 41 percent of 115 large corporations surveyed had a “management structure with fully integrated communications and public affairs functions.” This means that nearly 60 percent of large corporations have internal “silos” exposing the company to public and political attacks that can impact its bottom line priorities.

As a public relations professional who has worked and counseled both departments during crisis, the divide is a “clear and present” threat. However, these silos can be broken down and quickly turned into an opportunity to elevate a corporation’s reputation, while expanding its stakeholder impact.

SPEAKING IN TONGUES

Corporate communications is mainly HQ-centric working closely with senior management on communications projects ranging from reputation management to branding to events to executive presentations. Corporate communications is responsible for interfacing with the media and managing the company’s social media with an eye toward how every message impacts both shareholder and stakeholder impressions.

 

Government relations is mostly Capitol-centric working closely with federal and state lobbyists, trade association leaders and political operatives. Government relations is responsible for not only passing or killing legislation, but also influencing government regulators, ballot box referendums, mitigating agency backlashes, and to some degree candidate elections. Government relations is focused on influencing and mitigating the perceptions of public officials who have the power of picking winners and losers.

In short, each department has a different culture, perspective and language when it comes to communicating with stakeholders. This creates distrust and strained collaboration between the departments.

PUBLIC AFFAIRS COUNCIL

In 2013, Doug Pinkham, president of PAC, testified before the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Homeland Security Subcommittee on Oversight and Management Efficiency. In his testimony, Mr. Pinkham presented 10 common characteristics that companies exhibited in successfully integrating communications and public affairs, which he outlined:

1. Senior Management Engagement
2. Issues Management Process
3. Strong Collaboration Between External Teams
4. Integrated Crisis Communications Planning
5. Understanding of Risk Communications
6. Strategic Use of Communications Technologies
7. Innovate Approaches to Media Relations
8. Transparent and Ongoing Communications
9. Focus on Employee Communications
10. Robust Performance Measurement System

The practices prescribed by Mr. Pinkham can be placed into three categories of best practices that I call, Mediate, Integrate and Communicate or M.I.C.

MEDIATE

The common denominator driving the mission of corporate communications and government relations is building and maintaining relationships. The retaining of a consultant, who has worked in both spaces, is the ideal move to help each department build trust and efficacy.

An internal survey conducted by the consultant, followed by confidential one-on-one interviews, ensures practices will facilitate cultural buy-in that leads to the breakdown of stereotypes and silos. The consultant would then be equipped to mediate and translate jargon, factor in the nuances of each department, as well as help establish a platform that communicates the company’s priorities to a coalition of stakeholders.

INTEGRATE

Each department leader appoints a manager as a liaison for cross-department training, internal reporting and accountability. This is followed by a select number of representatives from each department (maybe risk management rep as well) who are designated to participate on a monthly or quarterly conference call to report on activities and share insights on opportunities and potential threats. These representatives would be the same people who would be called upon to develop or amend a crisis plan, as well as mitigate a crisis in real time.

The result is higher degree of efficiency in information gathering, planning and decision making. This is an imperative integration. I have seen in a crisis situation, a press release take 7 days to be edited and approved. Once it was finally approved by several department heads, the political issue had changed course and the release had now become obsolete.

When tens of millions of dollars are on the line, time becomes a critical factor in determining success or failure. Back to the press release and messaging during crisis mode, this one particular multi-national company was not only trying to establish a command and control process on the fly, but it found itself trying keep up with itself, compounding the effects of the external political threats.

The result was a loss of key revenue and a damaged corporate reputation.

COMMUNICATE

Once you have effective mediation and integration, then you’re in the position to dispatch team members to distribute key message points through multiple communications channels. More importantly, the company has a continuity of practices that puts it in a situational posture. Instead of being reactive, defensive, it is now become responsive and pro-active in engaging stakeholders before, during and after a threat.

There are too many variables that factor into the success and failure of integrating government relations and corporate communications for this blog to account. The key is finding the driving barriers that discourage talented professionals from freely collaborating and improving processes that streamline decisions that impact targeted stakeholders.

Today, corporations are expected to be more transparent and do the right thing. Therefore, corporate leaders cannot afford to risk their license to operate without having in place a M.I.C. championing the combined priorities of corporate communications and government relations in times of uncertainty and volatility.

Patrick Slevin heads SL7 Communications, an integrated public relations consulting firm. Over the last two-decades, Patrick has counseled C-Suite clients representing Fortune 100 companies, trade associations, foreign governments, PR agencies and political campaigns. He has developed and executed strategies, corporate campaigns and grassroots operations advancing the bottom line interests of clients in markets across the United States.

Patrick can be reached for a confidential inquiry at 850.597.0423 or email pslevin68@gmail.com. For more info on Patrick’s professional achievements visit his LinkedIn Profile HERE.