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Bonner & Associates: The Long and Undemocratic History of Astroturfing

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With a history that could surprise the most jaded Beltway insider, Jack Bonner, head of the D.C. public relations firm Bonner & Associates, might just be the king of corporate astroturf in the nation's capital.

Whether its on the health care debate or the proposed clean energy bill, a notorious public relations tactic known as  astroturfing is heavily influencing the public conversation.

Astroturfing, the manufacturing of a fake grassroots uprising, is a big money service offered by some very powerful Washington public relations companies. One of the more successful of these is Bonner & Associates, which boasts of a long history of manufacturing fake grassroots movements for corporate America. 

A 1993 New York Times article, "A New Breed of Hired Hands Cultivates Grass-Roots Anger," profiles Jack Bonner and his company as a "new breed of Washington firms that has turned grass-roots organizing to the advantage of its high-paying clients, generally trade associations and corporations." As the Times rightly puts it: "the rise of this industry has made it hard to tell the difference between manufactured public opinion and genuine explosions of popular sentiment."

If the name Bonner & Associates sounds familiar, it's because they were busted recently for sending fake letters on fake letterhead to House representatives in opposition to the Waxman-Markey clean energy and climate change bill. This latest failed astroturf attempt by Bonner was on behalf of the coal industry, but it is only one small example of the empire Jack Bonner has built in his 20-plus years of manufactuing dissent on progressive health and energy legislation.

Some of Bonner's earliest astroturfing efforts were on behalf of big tobacco companies.

A 1986 strategic document titled "Proposal to Defeat Current Legislation on Banning Tobacco Advertising" touts Jack Bonner and his company as experts in coalition building and grassroots. The document points to Bonner's past work on behalf of major chemical producers to defeat amendments to the Toxic Air section of the Clean Air Act as an example of Bonner's expertise in the area of grassroots campaigning.

If you want to see how an astroturf campaign is built, it's worth reading the whole document, but for a taste, here are some highlights: 

"Goal: defeat federal legislation to ban tobacco advertising and prevent similar state and local initiatives through a grass-roots campaign.

Objective: to identify and mobilize leading national and local leaders (i.e. business and community leaders, newspaper owners and journalists) to actively participate in a targeted grass-roots campaign directly with members of Congress).

And,

"... utilizing the expertise of Bonner and Associates and through our paid state coordinators, will undertake the following activities as part of a proposed grass-roots strategy:

- identify local/state community and business leaders through telephone and on-site communication efforts and develop a data base of supporters

- select chairmen to be responsible for the statewide and local efforts

- participate in association meetings and conventions and sponsor specific events

- coordinate meetings between state and local chairmen and their legislators

- conduct statewide tours in major cities with business and community leaders from the state

- place editorials in newspapers throughout the country

- enlist and coordinate support of state and local organizations

- compile and deliver resolutions signed by state and local organizations

- conduct a letter-writing campaign, telegram effort and phone-in day

The summary of tactics confidently concludes that:

"The grass-roots support generated by our campaign will defeat legislative attempts to ban tobacco advertising."

Another memo dated August 27, 1986 by tobacco's main front group in the 1980's and 90's, the Tobacco Institute (think, Thank You for Smoking), lists "grassroots expert" Jack Bonner as being available to discuss communications efforts and help the Tobacco Institute focus more clearly on their grassroots capabilities and needs.

Bonner follows this memo up with a thank you letter to the Tobacco Institute dated Sept. 26, 1986 that reads in part:

"I would like to express my appreciation for your kind attention at the field staff meeting last week I hope you found our discussion to be helpful and informative. The tobacco industry has many tough battles ahead of it and I am firmly convinced that the only chance for victories is by broadening your base of supporters."

Bonner's thank you letter includes a brag sheet of the services his company provides:

"What really influences a member of Congress on an issue? In our democracy, it is the constituent -- the voter -- or, rather, large numbers of them, who have the most influence on the way a Representative or Senator will vote.

"Lobbyists know it is one thing to tell a Congressman his voters care about an issue, but it is much more important to prove they care -- and care enough to get involved."

That's true, of course. When politicians run into a crowd of engaged citizens, they tend to react. But they also tend to mistake those citizens for disinterested third parties who actually care about the issue -- not as paid activists working for an affected industry.

Fast-forward to today where we have both clean energy and health care bills weaving their way through Capitol Hill corridors. One bill would provide better, more affordable health care for millions of Americans and the other would unleash an economic clean energy and green job revolution.

In an ideal form of democracy we would see a national conversation on the pros and cons of both these important pieces of legislation where average citizens would meet face-to-face with their local representative or go to Town Hall meeting and ask questions and get frank and honest answers. Instead, we get PR firms like Adfero organizing phony protests and Bonner whipping up fraudulent letters misrepresenting the position of charitiable organizations that didn't even know they were being dragged into the public debate. We get the American Petroleum Institute creating and coordinating faked-up events in which energy companies bus their employees over for lunchtime rallies that masquerade as spontaneous outbursts of public enthusiasm.

This isn't an expression of public opinion, it is an highly organized (and shamelessly well-funded) attack on democracy and, as the tobacco documents quoted above prove, it has been typical of the Bonner style for far too long.

If someone is participating in a "grassroots" campaign, their free t-shirts and baseball caps should all say "sponsored by (name your self-interested corporation here)." Those companies have every right to participate in the public conversation. But we should have every right to know when our elected representatives are getting bamboozled by a "spontaneous" campaign that was ordered up in a corporate boardroom and delivered by people who (if the Bonner example can be extrapolated) really don't care if the truth gets in the way of their messaging.

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