Global warming is a good metaphor for how the changing communications climate is affecting the array of PR tactics that hundreds of PR agencies offer their clients. Glaciers are melting, seas are rising, once-fertile forests turn to desert, and giant flies have begun to attack — but some species are too slow to move, and will die right where they stand.
It was not so long ago that my staff and I would draft "sample" letters to the editor, and distribute them, on a small scale, to average Dick and Janes to send to their local newspapers as if the letters were their own. We justified it thusly: The words might be ours, but the decision to sign and send was voluntary on the sender's part. The sender also is free to change our words as much as they want. Our drafts are merely suggestions. We'd never see the final product unless and until it ran. However, to be honest, when it did run, it usually looked just like our "sample."
I was never in charge of a campaign that did a nationwide letter-to-the-editor campaign, but the tactic is the same, and is based on the same intellectual premise: That your campaign represents all that is true and good, and is thus widely supported, but without being prompted your supporters might not state the case as eloquently as you, Mr. or Ms. PR Professional, would do.
By helping them, you could make extra sure that your supporters repeated your carefully-crafted "key messages," which you have told your client will carry the day. You are also helping to overcome your supporters' inertia, which might prevent them from taking a public stand on their own. After all, unlike you, these supporters aren't billing a client, so they can't be expected to go about their PR duties so diligently, right? They might not write at all. They might get distracted by, you know, life.
Well, attention all polar bears — the ice is almost gone, and you're about to fall into the Arctic Ocean to be nibbled to death by guppies.
David Mastio of InOpinion, a blog that promotes his newpaper op-ed consulting business, has made it a personal cause to expose AstroTurf letter-to-the editor scams, and protect our nation's editorial pages from running what are essentially unpaid political ads.
Check out the state-of-the-art letter-to-the-editor generators — an increasingly common tactic of the right and the left, as well as corporate-sponsored campaigns — from Hands off the Internet to Focus on the Family to MoveOn.org to advocates of The American Horse Slaughter Prevention Act.
If you click on this link, or this one, you can see how it works. On the net neutrality site, you're given a choice of six pre-written paragraphs containing all the key messages. On the anti-gay marriage site, you've got 20 to pick from. You pick the ones you like, in the order you like, and then with a couple more clicks, a letter over your signature is sent automatically to your local newspapers, based on the geographic information you provide.
Figuring out if a letter to the editor is AstroTurf-generated is easy to do nowadays. If you see a letter to the editor that looks suspiciously PR-ish in its use of phrases, all you need to do is highlight a distinctive sentence, and run it through a Google search. If you've guessed right, you'll find published letters to the editor with nearly identical text but different authors, running in newspapers all over America.
Prompted by one of Mastio's links, I copied this phrase into Google: "Although we don’t eat horses, we slaughtered 88,000 last year for export to countries that do." This is a talking point for advocates of the American Horse Slaughter Prevention Act. Based on the search, I found this precise phrase in 138 citations of letters to the editor, from newspapers from Tucson to Boise to Miami to Chicago. The context for the letter is the unfortunate breakdown of Kentucky Derby winner Barbaro, so all of these letters were sent in the days immediately after the May 20th Preakness race when it occured. There is no web site I can find where this draft letter was offered, so I'm assuming the letter senders were prompted by e-mails from an animal rights organization.
Mastio's anti-AstroTurf letters-to-the-editor campaign has been noticed by some of A-list bloggers like Andrew Sullivan, Ed Driscoll and the PR-industry-focused Holmes Report Blog, which is what brought my attention to it. Mastio's linked to a couple of places where supporters of the groups he's busted defend the tactic. For example, Gary Schneeberger of Focus on the Family wrote this to the Seattle Times:
Calling it "willful deception" for groups like ours to help readers write letters to the editor is ludicrous; all we offer readers like Elisa Baggenstos is the assistance of a professional communicator to put what is in their hearts into publishable form.
If it's unethical for someone to sign his or her name to a letter largely written and/or edited by someone who writes and/or edits for a living, then where's the outrage over commentaries that appear on this page under the name of a congressman or senator? Certainly, Mr. Pluckhahn is aware those pieces aren't written by the congressman or senator him/herself, but by a staff member who helps compile the lawmaker's convictions into a well-written whole.
But Schneeberger and other campaign organizers who agree with him miss the point. Nobody would mind if Elisa Baggenstos asked a professional communicator to put what is in her heart into publishable form. The problem comes when hundreds of other people use the same professional communicator's exact phrases, but sign their own names to them. It's a form of trickery and deceit on the part of the respective campaigns, who are trying to create an illusion of grassroots support by fooling newspaper editors into believing these letters are a spontaneous response to an issue of concern among the paper's readers.
It is also, by the way, cynical and patronizing to assume, as Schneeberger does, that Focus on the Family's supporters are too inarticulate to express their heart-felt opinions in their own words.
The practice seems to be growing but I predict its swift demise, because it is so easily detected and foiled. Newspaper editors should be able to sniff out a suspected AstroTurf letter, and can confirm their suspicions with a Google search like the one I did about the 88,000 slaughtered horses. I assume they would not knowingly publish a letter that has already appeared in another newspaper over a different signature.
If the newspaper editors won't do the detective work, I'm sure the adversaries to the campaigns using AstroTurf letters will. This is exactly how the left-wing bloggers busted Ben Domenech, the conservative writer who had been handed a blog by the Washington Post — proving his plagiarism with just a few clicks. As Schneeberger's unfortunate statement demonstrates, AstroTurf letters to the editor are a tactic that, once exposed, cannot be defended without damaging your cause.