Astroturfing: the unacceptable face of public relations
‘Citizens for a Free Kuwait’ was notoriously exposed as a front organisation created by international public relations firm Hill & Knowlton and funded by the exiled Kuwait monarchy, in a successful effort to seek American support for the first Gulf War.
Cigarette giant Phillip Morris used public relations firm Burson-Marsteller to create the front group ‘National Smokers’ Alliance’ in 1993, building membership to three million and then using the media to send out pro-smoking messages.
Genuine activist groups usually involve a cluster of individuals who have organised to exert pressure on an organisation on behalf of a cause, being characterised as extremely active, motivated and passionate about their cause.
In spite of differences in opinion on the role of activism in democratic society, scholars are unanimous in their view that activism helps democracy by engaging in rhetorical dialogue in the marketplace of ideas, which may eventually help overcome power imbalances to bring about change in society.
On being interviewed on personal experiences or encounters with grassroots activism, a former activist admitted that visiting Israel made him aware of how an entire population has been gathered into a national grassroots campaign and helped him recover from his cynicism towards genuine grassroots movements.
An academic who is deeply engaged in activism says she had observed various organisation-community relationships and how they can be rebuilt after losing trust. The manager of a corporation in the USA who had volunteered for the Obama campaign defends it as an example of a genuine grassroots movement, recounting thousands of volunteers like her who were inspired to take the message door to door, virtually creating an army.
It’s just a PR front
On the other hand, front groups have been explained as deceptive third party bodies set up by public relations agencies on behalf of certain organisations who choose not to reveal their identity, thus the ‘false front’ created to deceive the public into believing that there is considerable publoic support for the cause.
They operate in a very similar way to grassroots activism, and although the similarities in public relations strategies and tactics used in organising these groups are quite striking, the true sources of information are mostly never revealed by front groups while a genuine grassroots movement is one whose public relations techniques include admitting the sources of funding, common in the USA where political advertisements mention ‘paid for by…’, as opposed to campaigns who do not mention this at all.
While genuine grassroots support is based on transparent interests and is mutually beneficial, there are public relations practitioners all over the world who are using similar, although opaque, techniques which ultimately have a negative impact on the organisation that covertly support.
The work of front groups is more commonly known as ‘astroturfing’ in the USA, the metaphor originating from ‘astroturf’, the bright green artificial grass used in sports fields to simulate real turf.
‘Astroturfing’ is first assumed to have been used in the Washington Post by US Senator Lloyd Bensen in 1985 to name those synthetic grassroots movements created by public relations companies in return for large sums for money.
Journalist William Greider descrbed it as “democracy for hire” and in the Campaigns & Elections magazine as grassroots activism involving the “instant manufacturing of public support for a point of view in which either uninformed activists are recruited or means of deception are used to recruit them.”
Mintz had reported in 2000 how some of the American utility companies formed two front groups called ‘Citizens for State Power’ and ‘Electric Utility Shareholders Alliance’ to stop Congress from deregulating their industry, describing the activities of the groups in their own words as “discreet, guarded and highly confidential”.
More recent are the much discussed healthcare debates taking place in Washington DC where front groups funded by the healthcare, pharmaceutical and oil industries have been employing public relations firms to write fake letters with fake messages to the public, bearing the appearance of the latest White House messages.
Among the recently discovered front groups in the US are the ‘Conservatives for Patients’ Rights’ led by CRC Public Relations, and the ‘Centre for Medicine in the Public Interest‘ (CMPI), funded by pharmaceutical giants.
Front or affront?
The mastermind behind front groups was, shockingly enough, public relations pioneer Edward Bernays, who used this technique while trying to secure funding for a play called ‘Damaged Goods’. This was described by Bernays himself as a propaganda play that dealt with sex education that was unable to secure sufficient funding owing to its controversial content.
Bernays had described the false front organisation he created as a ‘prestigious sponsoring committee’, which successfully secured the funding through deception. Consequent to its success, Bernays had created a number of front groups such as ‘Trucking Information Service’, ‘Trucking Service Bureau’, and ‘Better Living through Increased Highway Transportation’, which successfully led to Congress sanctioning up to $650 million in 1952 towards the construction of new highways.
Public relations scholar Derina Holtzhausen points out that the concepts of consensus and symmetry in public relations have unfortunately been seriously challenged by the post-modern situations of dissensus and dissymmetry, since a desire for consensus implies seeking an unfair settlement in which the more powerful party gets their way.
The bestseller Toxic Sludge Is Good for You! Lies, Damn Lies and the Public Relations Industry by Stauber & Rampton, along with websites fuelled by investigative journalism such as PRWatch.org and Spinwatch.org bombard us with revelations suggesting that consensus actually represents an unequal relationship between activists and corporations.
Consider their headline: “public relations wizards concoct and spin the news, organize phoney ‘grassroots’ front groups, spy on citizens, and conspire with lobbyists and politicians to thwart democracy”.
The P word
We may hold the growing importance of consumer, citizen and the environmental movements responsible for such malpractices, and also the tremendous increase in the power of public interest groups, and as articulated by Megalli & Friedman:
“every day, groups with deceptive names, groups that represent major U.S. corporate powers, seek to dupe journalists and citizens into believing that the reports they produce and the positions they advocate are something other than the usual corporate propaganda”.
The operation of astroturfing or front groups violates a very significant code of the CIPR, which states that “protecting and advancing the free flow of accurate and truthful information is essential to serving the public interest and contribute to informed decision making in a democratic society”.