03/24/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

After Citizens United -- The Money is the Message

Once upon a time, the medium was the message - now, the Supreme Court Citizens United decision to increase corporate dollars in campaigns means that in politics, the money is the message.

In this era of anti-Big fill in the blank (Government, Oil, Banks, etc), Big Money will be spent to convince angry voters that candidates are really, truly for the little guy and gal. Now that doesn't have to mean that the Big Money candidate wins - especially if we use new media efforts to define just how the money is the message. The philosophy behind the Supreme Court ruling that corporate contributions equal political speech appears to be that special interest money is OK so long as it's accompanied by transparency. But the transparency part of the Citizens United equation will only work if we have netizens united to share information, track the money, connect the dots between special interests and policy, and enhance new media efforts in campaigns. Over the next 10 months leading to the 2010 elections, I'd expect an onslaught of spending and of online pushback as both sides of a fight battle furiously to define or be defined.

First, Citizens United will yield a call to share the information. We expect a simple disclaimer: "I'm the CEO, and I approve this message." CEOs of any entity - publicly traded company, LLC, or labor union - should identify themselves in the communication so we know who's pitching the candidate. Now in most cases a company has worked hard to be nonpartisan and above the political fray. Most CEOs would look at the corporate donors for and against social causes who have publicly risked boycotts and decide not to tarnish their all-American image. (Look how fast Tiger Woods' sponsors jumped ship - betting on a politician might be seen as an equally risky investment. Would you like to be holding John Edwards or John Ensign stock right now?) Most publicly traded companies hesitate to have their shareholders to vote on political expenditures (the way labor unions do) or force the boss to say "My name is CEO Smith and I approved this message." Also, if there are suddenly a proliferation of LLCs (like the IRS sec. 527 independent expenditure committees that blossomed last decade), having the same CEO approve multiple communications might signify that someone is over-engaged.

Second, you'll see people aggressively track the money. If we're talking about publicly traded companies, shareholders should add political contributions to the list of corporate social responsibility indicators and demand shareholder votes on expenditures. (Labor unions already have opt-out provisions for political activity with member dues; shareholders would have to force the issue). Immediate disclosure on FEC and corporate websites should bring the information into the light of day within 24 hours of the communication. If we're talking LLCs, multiple donors at the same address or filed by the same attorney or formed by similar friends will also tell the tale. The next wave in political organizing will likely be a house meeting where the host encourages people to open LLCs as vehicles to push corporate communications. Heaven help us!

Third, more will attempt to connect the dots. Let's be honest: the Court's ruling means that a lobbyist may go to a Senator, demand a vote, and threaten multimillion dollar opposition if the Senator refuses. Special interests will tighten their grip on Washington. Connecting the dots based on online reporting and filings about who is lobbying, who is spending, who is promising funds pro and con brings this into the light of day. New media will be vital in uncovering these truths and getting the word out. It won't stop the attacks but it will condition supporters to know that the hits are coming.

Fourth, Citizens United means enhanced new media in campaigns. If you are involved with a campaign on the other side of the corporate efforts, new media can help stop corporate communications from drowning out the voices of everyday Americans. Low budget high intensity new media strategies will be key. Posting information about who is attacking you and why may cause voters and reporters to look at the money funding the message. Hypocrisy has a way of piercing through the clutter - many a candidate "for the people" will be asked to turn away from Big Money.

While we do not yet foresee all the consequences of Citizens United we do know that every campaign will also be a battle to define exactly how the money is the message.

UPDATE: Jan 23: Now that President Obama has called out the Supreme Big Money Stampede and tasked Congress with a fix we will have our first test. Who will propose measures to remove corporate personhood, the most obvious fix? Not so many. Who will propose the reforms I mentioned - requiring CEO disclaimers, shareholder decisions, and prompt disclosures? Let's watch the Stampede begin with lobbying against the legislative fix. In the legislating, lobbying as well as in the campaigns themselves, the Money will be the Message.