Astroturf Lobbying Tactics

"If you contribute big money to a coalition you better be at the table when the decisions are made....Broad-based membership is: What does the public see? What do the legislators see? Decision-making is: a core group of three or so people who have similar interests and who are going to get the job done." So spoke Neil Cohen, a vice president of the Beltway consulting firm of APCO Associates, at a 1994 public relations conference in which he outlined the fine arts of "corporate grass-roots lobbying."APCO is a leader in the field of pseudo-grassroots lobbying for Corporate America, a practice which allows companies to manufacture outpourings of public support for their own agendas. Between 1993 and 1995, corporations spent some $790 million on grass-roots lobbying, a jump of 70 percent from the previous two years.Recent lobbying reforms passed by Congress won't affect APCO or other grass-roots practitioners. Bowing to the Christian Coalition, Congress exempted such lobbying from disclosure requirements, saying it would restrict the right of citizens to petition the government. National Journal recently quoted Washington lawyer Thomas Susman as saying the grassroots loophole "is enormous. You can miss millions of dollars this way on highly visible lobbying battles."APCO provides a broad variety of services to its corporate clientele. These include direct lobbying of Congress, coordinating strategic philanthropic activities, and handling "crisis management." APCO's promotional literature even pledges to monitor "emerging grassroots efforts that might lead to or result in negative actions affecting clients (such as boycotts or regulatory actions)."But grass-roots lobbying -- which APCO calls "political support services" -- is the firm's specialty. "[We employ] campaign tactics to create an environment in support of our client's legislative and regulatory goals," says an APCO brochure. "Our staff has written the direct mail, managed the telephones [and] crafted the television commercials."APCO's clients are mostly Fortune 500 firms, including a variety of tobacco makers, drug companies and insurance firms. They pay APCO to set up bogus "independent" coalitions without apparent links to industry. "You won't read about APCO on the front page of a newspaper talking about our work, but that doesn't mean that our work isn't making the front page," reads the promotional brochure. "We're proud of our record and we're even prouder that [the media writes] about our campaigns and their results -- not us."One recent APCO creation is The Advancement of Sound Science Coalition (TASSC), whose chairman is Garrey Carruthers, former governor of New Mexico. TASSC's stated aim is to combat the "consequences of inappropriate science through focusing attention on current examples of unsound government research used to guide policy decisions."The real agenda of the corporations who fund TASSC is to oppose any safety or health regulations that might impinge on their bottom line. A recent Coalition press release states that American agriculture is being undermined by the "exaggerated public fears over pesticides" that environmentalists have stirred up.Members of this preposterous "public interest" group regularly write op-ed articles and the group itself is treated with great reverence by the press. The Denver Post called TASSC an organization which provides "a much needed balance to the public debate that often surrounds disputed areas of science."APCO's most successful effort is its role in creating the Washington, D.C.-based American Tort Reform Association (ATRA), which is leading the nationwide drive for "reform" of products liability law. The APCO campaign speaks in the name of consumers -- "frivolous" lawsuits, goes the argument, drive companies abroad and push up prices at home. But ATRA's chief aim is to drastically limit the right of individuals to seek redress in the courts if they are injured or killed due to a company's negligence or incompetence. (In March, President Clinton vetoed an APCO-backed measure which had been passed by Congress.)While ATRA maintains its own staff and offices, the "tort reform" campaign is largely run out of APCO's offices. The strategy of Cohen, who ATRA lists as its "grass-roots consultant," is to take the complex issue of tort law and reduce it to a question of lawsuit abuse. "Rule No. 1 for me is stay away from substance," Cohen said in his warmly received address to the conference of PR flacks. "Don't talk about the details of legislation. Talk about...frivolous lawsuits, lawsuit abuse, trial lawyer greed." (Thanks to John Stauber, editor of PR Watch, for providing a copy of Cohen's speech.)Under the direction of Cohen, APCO has prepared a series of deceptive television spots, print ads and in-flight videos for air travelers. In one, several "fire fighters" complain that they're so fearful of being sued that they hesitate to rescue people in burning buildings. Vincent Bollon, secretary-treasurer of the International Association of Firefighters, called the spot "unconscionable" and "the most asinine thing I've ever seen."Cohen has also been central to creating a host of Astroturf groups at the state level, typically called Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse. To aid these outfits APCO -- which currently has its "field directors" at work in Maryland, California, Texas, Alabama, Florida, West Virginia and Louisiana -- conducts extensive polling, pays "independent" academics to prepare handy research papers, runs phone banks and otherwise oversees the operations of the state chapters.But Cohen is keenly aware of the need to keep APCO and its clients out of the limelight, as this would detract from the illusion that "tort reform" represents a spontaneous explosion by outraged citizens and small businesses. As he told his colleagues at the PR conference: "You need to have credibility and that means when you pick people to join your coalition, make sure they're credible. And if they're not credible, keep 'em away. In a tort reform battle, if State Farm ... [or] Nationwide, is the leader of the coalition, you're not going to pass the bill. It's not credible. Because it's so self-serving; everybody knows that the insurance companies would be one beneficiary."In Mississippi, APCO concocted Mississippians for a Fair Legal System for a "tort reform" campaign in 1993. Cohen gloated that weak disclosure laws meant that opponents "didn't really know [what business interests were] at the heart of everything. The problem they faced was we had 1,500 Mississippians mixed in with who our clients were."In 1994, a Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse front group led a tort campaign in New Jersey. It described itself as a coalition of small businesses, somehow neglecting to mention that it received major financial support from the at least three tobacco firms -- as pushers of a product that kills nearly half a million Americans annually, cigarette companies have a natural interest in limiting product liability suits -- from Bristol-Myers Squibb, a maker of silicon breasts implants, and from Owens-Corning Fiberglass, a manufacturer of asbestos.The front group was based in the offices of Princeton Public Affairs, a firm headed by Dale Florio, Philip Morris's top lobbyist in New Jersey. The tobacco company paid Florio $300,000 for his efforts on the "tort reform" drive.Cohen, incidentally, was not eager to discuss APCO's work. Asked about what companies he worked for, the APCO veep said it was "a firm policy to never reveal who our clients are unless it's a public requirement." He brought the interview to a hasty close upon learning that I had secured a tape of his remarks at the public relations conference.

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