Tags: Walker | grass roots | lobby | Wal-Mart

Author Looks at Grass Roots Lobbying

By    |   Friday, 03 October 2014 07:57 AM

C-SPAN reprised an interview from Book TV's visit to University of California, Los Angeles, with Edward Walker, an associate professor of sociology, about his book, Grassroots for Hire: Public Affairs Consultants in American Democracy.

Walker discussed how grass roots public relations activities "affect our democracy." This presumes that the model of democracy still prevails, which may be a question for another day. As the 2014 and 2016 elections approach, the activities Walker has studied will become even more fraught with implications at the intersection of public relations and public policy.

Walker explained that as public advocacy has evolved, the role of professionals has expanded, as consultants "work for a fee on behalf of corporations and industry groups or some other type of advocacy cause to try to mobilize public support." He finds that over the last several generations, what used to stem from the grass roots has developed into what he calls a "commercial service." This work addresses the management of corporate and industry reputations as well as regulation. He characterized the regulation as "unwelcome," but this writer would caution that sometimes regulation can be used as a tool of offense to cripple the competition.

According to Walker, clients no longer want to rely on in-house lobbyists for chores like preparing testimony and contacting policymakers. He used the term "unlobbying," coined by Thomas Edsall of The New York Times, where lobbyists mobilize public opinion on behalf of a corporate or industry agenda, and he noted that this work is not regulated as traditional lobbying.

Host Peter Slen suggested that this field has grown into "a billion-dollar industry." Walker estimated that there are approximately 140 firms in this industry, and he discussed some of the leading ones. They tend to be nonpartisan, like The Public Strategy Group in Massachusetts, which he said works mainly with land developers, with big retailers like Wal-Mart and Lowe's, the nuclear industry and retirement communities to respond to so-called NIMBY (Not in My Back Yard) protests by arguing that the proposed facility would provide jobs and work for local suppliers. (This writer would refer to many of these firms and groups as "bipartisan" rather than "nonpartisan.")

Another firm Walker mentioned was Gotham Government Relations in New York City, which has worked on behalf of the tobacco industry and New York City grocers, a group it organized, to help these industries face challenges, such as the entry of retailers like Wal-Mart.

Thus, professional grass roots lobbyists end up working on both sides of controversial issues.

Walker turned to the subject of partisan firms, citing Crossroads Campaign Solutions as a Democratic firm working for the National Council of La Raza, Progressive Majority and a number of immigrants rights groups with deep roots in the progressive community. On the Republican side there is Shirley & Banister Public Affairs, which was founded by a former campaign operative for former Sen. Bob Dole, R-Kan., and both Bush presidential campaigns and has worked with the National Rifle Association, the Christian Coalition and the Tea Party.

Slen asked about the tactics the grass roots firms used, and Walker responded that they are very selective in choosing targets for their campaigns (with the median number still reaching 750,000), and the firms are paid substantial amounts, either hourly or on retainer.

He addressed the ridicule the industry receives that what is presented as "grass roots" may actually be "Astroturf." He listed three criteria for this appellation: 1) masquerading, 2) material incentives and 3) fraud. When such tactics come to light, they can backfire on the sponsors and the consultants.

In the wake of the Jack Abramoff scandal in which lobbyists exploited Indian tribes, there have been calls for regulation that would require disclosure of the funding and activities of grass roots lobby firms, but the industry is resisting on First Amendment grounds, and it is formidable when it comes to grass roots lobbying.

(Archived video can be found here.)

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C-SPAN reprised an interview from Book TV's visit to University of California, Los Angeles, with Edward Walker, an associate professor of sociology, about his book, Grassroots for Hire: Public Affairs Consultants in American Democracy.
Walker, grass roots, lobby, Wal-Mart
Friday, 03 October 2014 07:57 AM
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