Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Attack of the Living Front Groups: PR Watch Offers Help to Unmask Corporate Tricksters

Fake "grassroots" groups have started springing up like toadstools after a rain, and this time they're coming at us from every angle: they're on TV, Twitter, Facebook and YouTube: "Americans for Prosperity," "FACES of Coal, "The "Coalition to Protect Patients' Rights," "Americans Against Food Taxes," the "60 Plus Association," "Citizens for Better Medicare," "Patients First" ... It's making our heads spin! Issues affecting some of the country's biggest industries, like health insurance reform, a proposal to tax sodas and sugary drinks, and the FDA's possible reconsideration of the plastic additive Bisphenol A, have boosted corporate astroturfing up to a dizzying pace. With all these corporate fronts coming out of the woodwork, how can citizens tell true grassroots organizations from  corporate fronts operated by highly-paid PR and lobbying firms? Here are some tips to help readers spot this kind of big-business hanky-panky.

What is a "front group," really?

A front group is an organization that purports to represent one agenda while in reality it serves some other party or interest whose sponsorship is hidden or rarely mentioned. The front group is perhaps the most easily recognized use of the third party propaganda technique. One of the best examples is Rick Berman's Center for Consumer Freedom (CCF), which claims that its mission is to defend the rights of consumers to choose to eat, drink and smoke as they please. In reality, though, CCF is a front group for the tobacco, restaurant and alcoholic beverage industries, which provide all or most of its funding. Not all organizations that engage in manipulative efforts to shape public opinion can be classified as "front groups," however. The now-defunct Tobacco Institute was a highly deceptive industry trade and lobbying group, but it didn't hide the fact that it represented the tobacco industry. There are also varying degrees of concealment. The Global Climate Coalition didn't hide the fact that its funding came from oil and coal companies, but nevertheless its name alone is sufficiently misleading that it can reasonably be considered a front group.

The shadowy way front groups operate makes it difficult to know whether or not a seemingly independent grassroots group is really representing some other entity. Thus, citizen smokers' rights groups and organizations of bartenders or restaurant workers working against smoking bans are sometimes characterized as front groups for the tobacco industry, but it is possible that some of these groups are self-initiated (although the tobacco industry has been known to use restaurant groups as fronts for its own interests).

Look for signs of astroturfing on the Web:

  • Does the organization list a phone number and street address on their Web site? If no address or phone numbers are shown, be skeptical. If they do list an address, note where it is. If it's in Washington, D.C., Google the address and/or the phone number to see what other companies or organizations share, or have shared, that same address or phone number. D.C. is home to many of the nation's largest professional PR and lobbying groups, and often one firm will operate several front groups with different corporate interests out of the same address. If you find other groups share the same address, look up the groups on SourceWatch.org to see if they are front groups or not;
  • If the group's Web site only offers a contact form to fill in and no street address, telephone number or email links to staff members, be suspicious. Likewise if the site offers a way to donate by credit card, but gives no fixed office to which you can mail a check, be suspicious;
  • Check to see if the site lists the names of the group's directors or staff. If names are listed, search Google Web, Google News and SourceWatch for the names of the top people running the group, and see where else they have worked, and if any news articles give hints about their corporate ties; and
  • Does the organization have a bus that tours the country promoting a certain point of view? Buses take money to operate, and a corporation may be footing the bill. Ask who's funding the bus.

Characteristics of a corporate front group

A front group typically has some, but not necessarily all, of the following characteristics:

  • Avoids mentioning its main sources of funding. Note that this does not necessarily mean absolute concealment of sponsorship. Some front groups go to great lengths to conceal their origins, funders and personnel links to sponsors. However, the likelihood that these will be exposed anyway, with embarrassing consequences for a group's credibility, has led many companies and their sponsored organizations to opt for a strategy of selective disclosure, in which funders are mentioned in an annual report or other obscure publication, but are not mentioned in the organization's most common communications that reach the largest audience, like newsletters or Web sites;
  • Is set up, operated or maintained by another organization, particularly a public relations, grassroots campaigning, polling or surveying firm or consultancy;
  • Engages in actions that consistently and conspicuously benefit a third party, such as a company, industry or political candidate;
  • Effectively shields a third party from liability/responsibility/culpability by making statements a corporation cannot make, but that nevertheless advance a specific corporate interest;
  • Re-focuses debate about an issue onto a new or suspiciously unrelated topic, (for example, casting the secondhand smoke as an issue of property rights);
  • Has a misleading, feel-good name that disguises its real agenda, such as the National Wetlands Coalition, which opposed policies to protect U.S. wetlands, or Citizens for a Free Kuwait, which purported to represent U.S. citizens but was actually funded almost entirely by the royal family of Kuwait. Sometimes the name of a front group might seem to suggest academic or political neutrality ("Consumers' Research," "American Policy Center"), while in fact it consistently turns out opinions, research, surveys, reports, polls and other declarations that benefit the interests of a company, industry or political candidate;
  • Consists of a group of vocal, "independent," "esteemed" academic "experts" who go on national tours, put on media events, give press conferences, seminars, workshops, and give editorial board meetings around the country, etc., who ordinarily would not seem to have the budget or financial means to carry out such events; and
  • Touts repeatedly in its own communications, and is touted by third parties, as "independent," "esteemed," "respected," "nonpartisan,""credible", etc.

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