Corporate PR Turns to the Internet

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This article was first published as Big Brother Gets Wired: The Dark Side of the Internet" in PR Watch, Volume 4, No. 1, First Quarter 1997. The original article was authored by John Stauber and Sheldon Rampton and is used here with permission. As with all SourceWatch articles, feel free to edit and revise.


Big Brother Gets Wired: The Dark Side of the Internet

Your boss calls you into his office and hands you a phone number. "Call your senator," he says. "I've got a piece of legislation that I need killed, and I want you to lobby against it for me. Here's a script spelling out what I want you to say. I'll just sit right here and listen in on your conversation."

This scenario--a vision of dictatorial hell for employees, heaven for corporate lobbyists--is not only possible but happening today on a mass scale, thanks to companies like Gnossos Software.

In a leaflet for a product called "Net Action," Gnossos gives an example of the way computer database and internet technologies are giving corporations unprecedented control over the political activities of their employees:

"Susan Michaels, Grassroots Director for ABC Corporation, comes to work on Tuesday morning and is greeted with email from the Washington office regarding an urgent legislative effort," the leaflet begins. "An amendment is being offered to the telecommunications reform bill which is against ABC Corporation's interests. The Washington Office requests a Net Action alert for the House of Representatives. Time is now 9 a.m.

"Susan drafts an email and reviews it with the Washington office until 10 a.m. At 10 a.m. Susan sends a corporate-wide email broadcast which hits 10,000 desktops throughout the United States within 30 minutes, using the internal email system. Susan requests immediate Net Action messages to be sent to congress@gnossos.com to be forwarded to Congress.

"Between 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. 1,000 employees (10%) take 5 minutes and send an email with their name, address, and message to congress@gnossos.com. Net Action properly formats the email and routes it to the office of each constituent's legislators."

"At 5 p.m. Susan receives a thankful call from the Washington office stating that the primary proponents of the planned amendment have decided to pull the controversial amendment, in part due to grassroots activity." "The next morning Susan receives a file with the full list of the 1,000 respondents to the Net Action. In 10 minutes, she processes these responses . . ."

This Orwellian scenario is no futuristic fantasy. It is a chilling example of the dark side of modern technology in actual current practice. Using the combined power of computer databases and internet communications, corporations are "empowering" their employees by ordering them to lobby en masse, while digitally recording their activities so they can be "processed" and monitored.

This type of technological trickery was not only tolerated but celebrated at the Public Affairs Council's "National Grassroots Conference for Corporate and Association Professionals" in Key West. In workshop after workshop, presenters stressed the importance of using modern computer and communications technologies to the fullest extent possible.

The sophistication of a company or trade association's database and communications system is the key to the "grassroots" lobbying technique. The first step is to store data on company employees and retirees in a computerized database which is "enriched" with 9-digit zip codes and matching state and federal legislative districts, enabling the company to identify each employee's state and federal legislators are, along with his or her voter precinct. Databases also keep track of employee phone numbers, e-mail addresses, history of political activity and contributions, special connections and potential influence over specific politicians.

This database in turn is integrated into "campaign management software," which keeps a record of each individual's political lobbying on behalf of the company. Through the internet and automated telephone technology, companies can rapidly "patch through" employees to the offices of their elected officials.

"Corporate Action Networks"

The pharmaceutical giant Merck & Co. is one of the companies that is using the information superhighway to mobilize a "Merck Action Network" of 8,800 company employees and retirees. Participants receive a quarterly Grassroots Update and "Action Alert," and participate in their industry-wide trade association lobbying network, the Health Care Leadership Council.

Merck's Laura Romeau described how Merck leads the troops using its own internet website. According to Romeau, the company deliberately has avoided registering the website (http://congress.nw.dc.us/merck/) on any internet search engine, so as "to preserve it as a membership privilege" and to prevent "anyone else from going into it."

Merck's recent actions include generating 800 individual telephone calls to Congress in order to lobby for "FDA Reform" (i.e. speeding up pharmaceutical drug approvals), along with gathering 80,000 names in a petition drive. Romeau emphasized that Merck, in contrast to some corporations, is "very careful about who, what, and how much we ask people to do," although she qualified this by saying "except during the health care reform debate, when everything was on the line."

Whatever "very careful" means, it does not mean that Merck avoids pressuring its workers into supporting its political positions. "Get employees to see that they're not just volunteering their time, but that it's part of their job," Romeau advised. She also advised fellow PR pros to monitor the success of their grassroots efforts by "asking employees for copies of letters and responses."

Upon first perusal, Merck's website looks indeed like an appealing model of computer-enhanced individual empowerment. It includes a database enabling visitors to type in their zip code and see a list of their congressional representatives. Other features make it easy to quickly compose and send email. Rather than going directly to the congressperson in question, however, the email gets routed through the company's web server--a subtle way of signaling employees that their messages can be easily monitored.

During a "Fundamental Grassroots" workshop, PAC staffer Leslie Swift-Rosenzweig kept a straight face as she described employee participation in company grassroots lobbying as "voluntary." She added, however, that "some companies are putting grassroots activities into their job descriptions."

Jack Mongoven of Mongoven, Biscoe & Duchin was even more blunt. Asked how public affairs officers could get more employees active in company lobbying programs, Mongoven replied bluntly, "Get a letter from the CEO or a company vice-president. . . . People will be anxious to please you. They remember the one who hired them."

The Flip Side

Merck's annual grassroots budget is "$200-300 thousand per year," Romeau said--small in comparison to the company's lobbying and Political Action Committee donor programs. At first glance, therefore, the scale of Merck's Action Network may not seem terribly significant. Keep in mind, however, that one out of every six workers in the United States is now employed by a large corporation such as Merck and that nearly all of the Fortune 500 are presently gearing up to "go grassroots" with a vengeance.

Multiply the impact of the Merck Action Network by 500 and you start to get a sense, not only of why corporations presently "rule," but also how they plan to remain in charge well into the 21st century.

Corporations realize, however, that computer and internet technologies also threaten to create forces beyond their control. "Many public interest activist groups are way ahead of corporations," warned Samuel A. Simon in a seminar titled "Learning How to Harness the Power of the Internet for Your Grassroots Program."

To illustrate his point, Simon used an overhead projector to display the interactive web sites of the Sierra Club (http://www.sierraclub.org) and the League of Conservation Voters (http://www.lcv.org).

Simon noted that information overload is increasingly making it difficult to find anything or, conversely, to persuade the public to pay attention to information broadcast via the internet. The solution, he argued, is to "push your information in an inter-modal way, to reach out to people in the way that they want to be reached (i.e. by fax, pager, phone, or computerized e-mail.)"

Bell Atlantic, for example, uses an automated list server to feed customized information to over 700 reporters across the country. When registering with Bell Atlantic through Bell's internet site (http:www.ba.com), reporters fill out a registration form that specifies what kind of news story and angle interests them and how they want to receive news releases, advisories, graphics and other background materials. Armed with this information, Bell is able to spoonfeed reporters just the information they need to write their story.

"Have any companies here been attacked on the internet?" Simon asked. Several people raised their hands, including a representative from Brown & Williamson Tobacco Co. "Then you understand," Simon said, "the importance of having ongoing monitoring of what is being said about your company."

Fortunately, he added, companies can "hire a young person knowledgeable about computers for very little money" to help them monitor what's being said about them on the internet.

Services like Nexis-Lexis and Alta-Vista enable corporations to track virtually every instance in which they are mentioned in the news or on the internet. If corporations don't want to do this in-house, they can hire other companies to do it for them. In fact, as Scott Parven from Aetna Insurance pointed out, sometimes companies prefer to "hire vendors to avoid tainting yourself."

We Have Your DNA

Dr. Verne Kennedy, president of the Pensacola, Florida-based Marketing Research Institute, offered a keynote address on yet another high-tech corporate intrusion into citizens' lives. Looking every bit the part of the absent-minded professor, Kennedy started off his speech with a rather peculiar apology.

"I feel a bit guilty, because some of these new technologies smack of Big Brother," he said as he described what he calls "DNA Grass Roots Targeting."

"DNA," in Kennedy's usage, stands for "demographic niche attributes," which MRI specializes in collecting from surveys, census records, election voting data, consumer and credit data. A person's "DNA profile" includes information such as his or her age, marital status, number of children, length of residence, homeowner or renter status, house value, net worth, number of years of schooling.

"Based upon a person's DNA, we can predict their reaction to a specific message," Kennedy said. DNA profiles are "extremely good at predicting behavior."

MRI specializes in selling this information to right-wing and Republican Party political candidates, along with corporate marketing groups.

Kennedy denied that his company uses confidential information such as the bank credit records, but he admitted that "some less scrupulous companies" are already providing this type of personal information to their clients.

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