Samuel Lowenberg - Independent Journalist biography articles articles

High tech nurtures grass roots

Legal Times  September 7, 1998

When two of the most unpopular industries in America saw public outrage building against them earlier this year, they realized that traditional lobbying and advertising weren't enough to fend off drastic action against them on Capitol Hill. They needed their own grass roots.

Fortunately for the tobacco and managed-care industries, those grass roots were for sale.

In the crucial weeks before Congress voted on tobacco-control legislation in June, a grass-roots firm working for the industry got "political influentials" in Republican districts to call their senators and assure them it was ok to kill the bill.

And in July, when Congress was considering "patients' rights" legislation to regulate the managed care industry, the same grass-roots firm, Arlington, Va. 's Direct Impact, was consulted by the industry to help it counter its negative image. The firm culled the health plans' lists of former patients to find those willing to speak out on behalf of the industry.

In both cases, the result was the same: Congress was flooded with letters, phone calls, and personal visits from "normal people" who took the industries' side. Tobacco and managed care avoided further regulation, and the issues will not likely surface again soon on the Hill.

Grass-roots campaigns have long been a part of the Washington scene, allowing advocates to serve up the unassailable credibility of "average citizens" in what are really high-priced lobbying campaigns.

But these days, it's no longer good enough for grass-roots firms to generate thousands of identical postcards or to patch uninformed callers through to legislators' offices. Those generic pitches are roundly ignored these days by members, who now recognize them as manufactured.

Today, lobbyists are turning to technology and to strategies borrowed from mass marketing and political campaigns to quickly pinpoint constituents who can act as effective, credible advocates for their clients.

"It used to be that a couple of guys would get together for martinis and cut a deal, " says Mark Merritt, the grass-roots strategist for the American Association of Health Plans (AAHP), which represents the managed care industry. "But now it is increasingly important to educate constituents. They can become the most effective lobbyists for your cause."

In this "grass tops" lobbying, specificity brings credibility. Some grass- roots firms actually boast that they can, on short notice, come up with a sob story in a congressional committee chairman's district in time for a hearing. Such performances carry more weight than a thousand postcards.

The new breed of precisely targeted grass-roots campaigns can be traced to the dramatic increase in the power and speed of computers--and to the increasingly sophisticated ways in which they are used.

The top grass-roots firms use computer databases drawn from a range of sources, including vast direct mail marketing lists and companies' internal records of customers, suppliers, vendors, or even shareholders. They can segment the market in previously unheard-of ways.

For example, a leaked tobacco industry strategy memo from December 1997 suggested targeting "soccer moms" as potential constituents. Such capabilities are increasingly important in lobbying campaigns.

"We can pick out precisely the type of households we are interested in, " says John Brady, chairman of Direct Impact. Brady declined to discuss the firm's work on the tobacco and health care campaigns.

Direct Impact also has dozens of people manning phone banks and maintains a nationwide network of operatives, usually local political party workers, who can be activated on a moment's notice.

The firm's arsenal was a key factor in turning back what seemed to be an overwhelming public outcry to regulate the managed care industry this year. During the patients' rights battle, the industry was being assailed by consumer advocate groups that provided a drumbeat of daily horror stories from patients. The AAHP responded by using Direct Impact to find patients who liked their managed care plans enough to tell success stories.

"You create new information and you create a political rationale that wasn't otherwise apparent, " says Merritt, the strategist.

The AAHP has undertaken a long-range project using Direct Impact to code the 36 million clients of the association's member plans, which include Humana, United Healthcare, and Pacificare, into grass-roots lobbying databases. These lists can be indexed and are searchable in a variety of ways, including by legislative district.

The industry sees such information as a powerful tool that allows it to mobilize plan members on short notice, says Merritt. Members who choose to participate provide personal information, such as their leadership roles in groups like the PTA or whether they have relationships with their members of Congress.

"It's the building of an industry political infrastructure, " says Merritt.

But this technique worries Rep. Fortney "Pete" Stark (D-Calif.), the ranking minority member of the House Ways and Means Health Subcommittee and a leading patients' rights advocate, since, among other things, many of the health plan customers are on Medicare.

"Is it legal or appropriate under Medicare's patient privacy provision to be contacting beneficiaries for purposes of lobbying?" Stark recently wrote to the inspector general of Health and Human Services and to the General Accounting Office.

Questions about privacy are bound to crop up as grass-roots firms make increased use of databases that contain personal information about members of the public.

The Internet service provider Juno Online Services, for instance, offers advocates the ability to send messages targeted to specific segments of its 4.6 million members. In exchange for using Juno, which is free, users are required to enter such information as their age, income, and interests. Juno clients can then send issue ads to users most likely to respond favorably.

But technology is only a tool for grassroots firms, warns Buddy Gill, an Arlington, Va.-based grass-roots consultant who helped orchestrate the nation's credit unions' successful campaign to pass legislation overturning a recent Supreme Court ruling that threatened their business interests. Even the most sophisticated databases are only as good as the information that goes into them. "Garbage in, garbage out, " Gill says.

In the credit unions' campaign--which trounced the powerful banking lobby-- Gill found politically influential advocates in swing districts by cross- referencing lists of small businesses and nonprofits whose employees belonged to credit unions against Federal Election Commission records, he says. Gill notes that he had to do this by hand, because a computer would not have made all the proper connections.

Even Bonner & Associates, one of Washington's oldest grass-roots firms, is moving toward specialized grass-tops techniques. Technology allows the firm to mobilize its 200-person phone bank operation in one-tenth the time it took a decade ago, says President Jack Bonner. He points to his recent work for the dairy industry in its battle to fight off government regulation: In that fight, he generated support from such disparate groups as the Louisiana Independent Auto Dealers Association and the Georgia Golf Course Superintendents Association.

APCO Associates Inc., the D.C.-based public relations firm, used new technologies to create software that automatically indexes news databases to track the effect of grass-roots campaigns. The software even allows clients to tell, at the click of a mouse, whether a specific journalist has been writing positive or negative articles on an issue.

The tobacco industry has long used in-house database technology to keep track of and generate supporters. The various promotions sponsored by the industry, such as R.J. Reynolds' "Camel Cash" and Philip Morris' "It's a Woman Thing" Virginia Slims compact disc giveaway, ask customers to send in cards with personal information. Those responses are then placed into databases and used by the companies to generate political support, as they did in defeating the McCain tobacco legislation a few months ago.

Mike Malik, one of the developers of the database for Philip Morris, now runs his own District-based grass-roots firm, Triad Communication. Malik declines to discuss his work, but the firm's Web site advertises that it can produce average citizens who will be advocates for clients: "Triad has successfully recruited from a database of grassroots advocates to find positive testimonials and has placed these stories with the media."

The tobacco industry's decision to launch a widespread grass-roots campaign came fairly late in its legislative battle, when the McCain bill was within a few weeks of a floor vote. Industry experts say this reflects the reticence of lobbyists to take their normally private, relationship-driven business and go public with it.

"It's only a certain kind of campaign that lends itself to a large public effort that grass roots gets used on, " says Bill Cable, chairman of Timmons and Co., a D.C. lobby shop.

The fact that grass-roots firms influence the policy process but still do not have to register with Congress as lobbyists has some critics riled.

"That is a serious loophole that Congress should close, " says Wright Andrews, former president of the American League of Lobbyists.

Grass-roots firms say that by getting the public involved in political debates, they are helping spread democracy.

Others aren't quite so sure.

American University political scientist Ronald Shaiko sees the proliferation of grass-roots lobbying as a reaction to the dissolution of political party discipline and politicians' increased focus on public opinion polls.

"We have a hyper-attentiveness to constituency interests . . . to the point of having a negative impact on the policy process, " says Shaiko, a student of the lobbying process.

Shaiko points out that the databases, national networks of political operatives, and banks of phone marketers used by grass-roots firms, far from democratizing lobbying, make it accessible only to moneyed interests. A national campaign can cost more than $1 million.

Despite its cost, says Andrews, grass roots are now de rigueur in any major lobbying campaign. "On the one hand, people will say it's just generated grass roots. But if you don't have it, people wonder why it's not there."

Copyright by Samuel Loewenberg and/or the publication in which it first appeared
Do not reprint without permission