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.
You can follow Prof. Edward T. Walker on Twitter: @EdwardWalker
For more information on Prof. Walker you can click HERE.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.