I am ambivalent about the idea of corporate "front groups" or what is more pejoratively labeled 'astroturfing'. Misrepresentation of any sort is just too dangerous a communications or lobbying strategy when every citizen, employee or bureaucrat can be a whistleblower or journalist.
The issue was raised again last week when I came across a 'Front Groups Portal' wiki, a SourceWatch project of the Center for Media and Democracy (CMD. . . a biased and uni-dimensional advocacy group -- with a url called prwatch.org -- which nevertheless keeps corporate communicators on their toes.) The purpose of the wiki is to expose groups which claim “to represent one agenda while in reality (serving) some other interest whose sponsorship is hidden or rarely mentioned -- typically, a corporate or government sponsor.”
As an aside, you got to hand it to the CMD. Using a wiki for the purpose of "exposing" makes a lot of sense. When it comes to advocating a point of view, for some campaigners, NGOs and watchdogs facts are less important than the way they can be used to serve ideology. (Look at the situation Barrick Gold finds itself in today.) Unedited and unsupervised wikis can encourage the primacy of 'doxa' rather than rational analysis. Innuendo and rumor become fair game.
But What About Astroturfing?
First principle here . . . There is nothing wrong with creating a coalition of like-minded companies to present a coherent, well-defended and honest point of view about a social or political issue. Business creates wealth and therefore has a right to attempt to influence policy. Governments are fallible when it comes to writing regulation. Partisan politics can distort effective public policy. And few advocacy groups are willing to admit their science is sometimes shaky; their motivation driven by ideology; their "proofs" less than rigorously questioned internally.
Spirited exchanges of ideas are essential to effective economics and democracy. Like labor, business leaders have a right to organize responsible support for, or opposition to, a trend, decision or policy: the pivotal word, of course being responsible. And responsible organizations shouldn't tolerate misrepresentation. Here are five ideas to avoid astroturfing, to remain real not fake.
Five Ideas for Creating Defensible Industry Coalitions
- Be transparent. Always. Without having to be asked or told you are not being so.
- Be honest. Don't name a group 'concerned citizens' when it is really a group of 'angry industry executives'.
- Treat opposing viewpoints with respect. Nothing undermines bias or radicalism like valuing the contribution of the activist even if convictions differ.
- Take the rhetoric out of the coalition's communications. The contrast between an opponent's overstatement and a reasonable presentation of fact will be recognized by the people whose opinions matter.
- Defend the value in a democracy of the freedom of association . . . even for business leaders.