Watering The Grass Roots

How to buy a 'spontaneous' popular uprising

American automakers pondered a difficult riddle last year: how could they squash legislation that improved fuel efficiency, reduced air pollution and reduced dependence on foreign oil-without looking like greedy corporate ghouls? Their Washington lobbyists could criticize the significant cost of the proposal, but that might not persuade senators since previous fuel-efficiency laws had reduced gas guzzling without devastating the auto companies. The manufacturers had a dream, though: if only The People would rise up and rally to their side-then Congress would listen. But how were they to come by this spontaneous popular uprising?

They paid Jack Bonner to find one. Bonner is a corporate "grass-roots lobbyist"-one of a new breed of consultants who influence legislation by stirring up the electorate back home instead of gladhanding members of Congress at the Capitol. Fuel efficiency, Bonner reasoned, would lead to smaller cars, Whom does that hurt? People in wheelchairs! Contact the handicapped groups. Smaller cars are also less safe in crashes-and could endanger young passengers. See if the Boy Scouts are interested. His "Yuppie Sweatshop" of 60 young operatives then telephoned influential groups and within two months had generated thousands of letters and phone calls to key senators. "There's no way these [handicapped] families could get themselves or their equipment in these small cars," said Linda Werkmeister, then of the South Dakota Easter Seals, at a Bonner arranged press conference. The automakers believe the grass-roots efforts helped kill the amendment, "Call off the dogs," one member of Congress complained.

Washington still has its backroom power lobbyists, but companies are increasingly borrowing from the organizing techniques of environmental and consumer activists. Traditional lobbying and public-relations firms have set up "grass-roots capabilities" to compete with the specialty lobbying "boutiques" like Bonner & Associates. Dozens of subcontractors have sprouted to set up phone banks, run computers and send out the mail. "Some guy in a pinstripe suit telling a senator this bill is going to hurt Pennsylvania doesn't have the impact of someone in Pennsylvania saying it," Bonner says. Watering the grass roots involves more people in politics-but also makes it hard to tell whether democratic outbursts are actually dances choreographed by consultants.

Firms now employ sophisticated techniques to hone in on constituents who back their position and will take action. A group of major retailers last year hired Reese Communications Companies to block a protectionist textile bill that would in effect raise the price of imported clothes. Reese started with 3 million names from its own database and rented mailing lists and then began weeding out the unreliables. "The most sympathetic individual was the Yuppie buying Armani ties," says Michael Graham, the firm's president. But there was a problem: "Yuppies are notoriously the worst letter writers." What about retirees? They were risky because they might harbor anti-Japanese sentiment from World War 11. Using polls, demographic information and "psychographic" studies of lifestyles and values, they whittled their list to around 600,000 middle-aged, well-educated voters living in districts of key representatives and sent them lobbying packages. About 50,000 of these constituents wrote letters or phoned their legislators, the firm estimates. That deluge, along with opposition from the White House and retailers, helped kill the bill.

The key to any carefully planned effort is to make it look like a natural explosion of raw democracy. Today "Mailgrams are passe," says lobbyist John Zorack. Congress figured out that all those identical letters "from home" originated in downtown Washington. Specialized Data Systems of Jenkintown, Pa., peddles a computer program that spews out form letters, each one slightly different from the next. This gives "a strong impression that a grass-roots sentiment is being expressed, rather than an orchestrated letter-writing campaign," says Richard Epstein, founder of the company. Some high-tech gadgets even ensure that supporters follow through on their promises. A lobbyist can call up potential supporters, find out if they're willing to speak to their legislator's staff aide and, if so, patch them through to the legislator's office right away.

Is this good for democracy? "Companies have just as much right to express themselves on issues as the NRA or the Sierra Club," says Graham. But lobbying firms sometimes give the citizens they draft a less-than-thorough education. Fuel-efficiency proponents believe Bonner's campaign was extremely misleading because the legislation would not eliminate minivans capable of lifting wheelchairs.

This lobbying trend could shift the legislative balance of power more toward corporations. Consumer and environmental groups have often been outspent by business but have compensated with grassroots organizing, often using volunteers. Corporations can now spend millions to neutralize the volunteer groups' main tactical advantage. Businesses are also learning what public-interest groups have long known-when you organize you also propagandize. In that way, the new corporate emphasis on grass-roots campaigns could affect much more than that day's vote.