PR: The problem

By Steve Kirsch
March 21, 2002
Version 2

Executive summary

Today, special interests and the conservative right set the agenda for our country. We make decisions in Congress that are made to placate these groups, rather than made in the best interests of the people of this country. Electing great people and passing campaign finance reform is a good start towards solving this problem. But it's not sufficient. Nor is it required.

If we want government to create responsible policies that ensure a better future for all of us and our kids, the core issue is affecting the way members of Congress vote. The CAFE and RPS votes in the Senate recently showed that only 24 Senators voted in a way consistent with the best long-term interests of this country on these two bills. Senator Kerry said he was "amazed" that his colleagues did not stand up to the scare tactics of the automakers. So even if we take the money out of politics and elect great people, we'd still have a big problem because these "other factors" are often the single most important determinant in how a member will vote. 

In the CAFE case, this was a key economic and environmental issue, and the "good guys" never showed up. The economic and environmental price we will have to pay for this tragic piece of legislation is enormous. But although there was excellent press coverage on how tragic this vote was, the average American doesn't even know what CAFE standards are, or why they should care. They have no idea that CAFE standards are absolutely critical to reduce global warming, reduce air pollution, reduce the amount of money flowing overseas, decreasing our dependence on foreign oil, reducing total operating costs for vehicle owners, and so on. It is, by a huge margin, the single most effective measure we can take to impact our economic and environmental future.

Progressive groups tend to be clueless about promoting their agendas; poor messaging. We must create a new organization with PR and lobbying cross-functional expertise that can act as a catalyst to help progressive causes create, package, and deliver their message to lawmakers, thought leaders, and the public. This organization would be "a PR machine for responsible policies." Core services would be provided to organizations at no charge. This organization would not be a think tank. It would not do research. Instead, it would focus on delivery. It would select the top causes, and coordinate a mobilize the support necessary to create and deliver the message. They would highly skilled in the art of impacting votes in Congress in much the same way that the auto lobby works today, e.g., by running attack ads in a member's district before the issue comes up, and attack ads after a vote if the member votes the "wrong way." 

That is, we need to form a "white hat" version of the Heritage Foundation that can promote responsible policies to Americans on the top issues facing us today. Brookings is all about research and marketing facts and the Heritage Foundation is all marketing opinions. There is a major difference.

While this sounds obvious, it's not been done. This is what needs to change. And it must change now. If we don't do it now, the hundreds of millions in soft money contributions that formerly went to electing Democratic candidates will be lost. If you're thinking, "Good, I don't have to write a big check anymore" and thinking that there will just be less money in the system, you need to think again. That money on the other side will be funnelled into issues using existing and new organizations. If we don't match that, things will get a lot worse for us under Campaign Finance Reform, not better. 

Leading lawmakers including Gephardt and Daschle as well as many others including Terry McAuliffe, George Soros, Ralph Neas, Norman Lear, Ellen Miller, David Fenton, Mike Lux, Bobby Muller, Kristen Wolf, Pat Griffin, Bill Zimmerman, John Podesta, Bill Press, and many others agree it is time for a change. All of these people have been briefed on what I'm proposing to do here. All are supportive of the idea and the general approach.

This document outlines the problem. Other documents (see links at the bottom) outline a description of the proposed organization and its management team.

If you are looking to donate dollars to impact America in a positive way, there is no higher leverage investment than investing in this new organization. This document explains why.

Take a look at the following video: Contract with the Planet. If this is what you'd like to see, read on and I'll explain how we get there. 

Electing good people is not good enough

I feel like I am beating my head against a wall. I come up with great ideas that go nowhere because they get stalled in Washington. 

Bobby Muller had a good idea to ban the use of landmines. The US doesn't even use them anymore. There is no need to ever use them again. Every NATO country except the US has agreed to ban them. But we can't get them banned in the US. Bobby's been trying for over 11 years now....and he's got a great team of full time professionals working on this year round. He's got some of the most experienced people in Washington working for him. His is the only landmine group that has access to top military to work the issue from the inside. To date he's spent twenty million dollars, and he just put up another $1.5 million in ad buys. One simple issue...a "no brainer" with no organized opposition and support from one of the most influential Senators. Can't get it signed into law.

So if Bobby, with all his experience, expertise and full time staff can't get his landmine issue passed in 11 years, then what chance do you think the rest of us have? That's right: near zero. And believe me, compared to Bobby's organization, almost everyone else on the progressive side of issues is a neophyte. What Bobby and I have experienced is no different than anyone else with a good idea will face.

Here's another example. The Senate just passed the Levin amendment which killed higher CAFE standards. How many people know that higher CAFE standards is absolutely required if we ever hope to combat global warming and that it's absolutely required to reduce our dependence on foreign oil? Great things would come from higher CAFE standards:

  • Less global warming
  • Less pollution
  • Less dependence on foreign oil
  • Less money sent overseas each year (we send $50B overseas each year to purchase oil)
  • Stable fuel prices
  • Gas prices would not rise as fast over time
  • Total cost of ownership of all vehicles would be reduced
  • No reduction in fact, since many super-heavy vehicles might be lighter, there would less fatalities because the weight mismatches between vehicles would not be as great as they are now
  • No reduction in the "power" of the vehicle (as Ford and Honda have pointed out)
  • Our world oil supply will last more than 60 years (without CAFE standards, there is less than 60 years of oil left on the entire planet...for the rest of time).

John Kerry did a brilliant job of making a compelling case for higher CAFE standards and explaining why the Senate should defeat the Levin amendment to the energy bill. Basically, if you are a thinking rational person, you've got to support higher CAFE standards because it's the ONLY way to achieve the goals that everyone wants such as less dependence on foreign oil (including the Senators that voted against it). But they didn't vote based on the merits of the logic; they did not vote on what is best for the country both economically and environmentally. Who wants higher gas prices and gas shortages? Nobody! But nobody understands the implications; that the Senate just voted overwhelmingly in favor of this.

Kerry got shot down by a huge margin. Not because he was wrong, but because the other side did a better job of PR (to the public and to lawmakers). They ran totally misleading ads in members' districts telling people that if CAFE passes, they'd have to give up their SUVs. Simply not true. Ford today advertises their hybrid SUV that has the same power but double the gas mileage. And 25 years ago, the auto makers testified that CAFE standards would mean no car larger than a Ford Pinto could be built. 

What good was Kerry's speech? Nobody in the Senate is listening; they'd all made up their minds before then (and the Senators aren't on the floor or listening to the debate anyway). So CSPAN viewers saw it; but it's too late for people to do anything about it since the votes were all decided up before the debate. So now we have headlines in The New York Times like "Large Ice Shelf in Antarctica Disintegrates at Great Speed" and our Senate just voted to make things even worse.

Or look at the Weldon cloning bill in the House. It was passed by more than a 100 vote margin to make it criminal to use therapeutic cloning to save lives. In other words, they made it a crime to use your own cells to save your own life. So their messaging is so effective, that they can convince substantial numbers of Democrats to vote along with them.

My experience is a symptom of a much larger problem... progressives are basically being outgunned on the PR war by the conservatives. This is painfully obvious to me after only a short time learning the ropes. There is an excellent memo written by Kristen Wolf when she was at Fenton entitled, "When they're right, they're right (and what to do about it)" that details why we lose. 

Even the most basic issues are a problem. Fortune (Feb 18,2002 p. 42) highlighted a New York Times poll that revealed that people have more faith in Republicans to balance the federal budget than Democrats (44% to 39%). To say I find that astonishing is an understatement. 

Why members of Congress vote the way they do

A member of Congress makes a decision on an issue by taking into account the following factors. Each member is different and each has a different weighting scheme for the importance of each input, and the weighting can change over time. Here are some of the factors:

  • my own opinion on what's best for the future of America
  • what's best for America today (ignoring tomorrow)
  • what's best for my constituents
  • how I personally feel about this issue
  • how my colleagues in the party feel
  • whether I owe someone (or the party) a favor on this bill (payback for a horsetrade)
  • whether there will be retribution if I vote a certain way (from the party, colleagues, or special interests)
  • how intensely the special interests feel, and whether they're support (or wrath) will be important for my re-election
  • what my friends think or ask me to do
  • what my campaign supporters ask me to do
  • what will help me win re-election
  • what the polls say
  • what I read in the newspaper
  • my perception of how intensely my constituents feel based on: letters, faxes, emails, etc.

The most important thing though is this simple empirical fact: 

  • 25% of members will vote based on what is in the best interests of the people of America, even if Americans have been mislead on the issue and are at odds with the member
  • 25% of members will vote based on their ideology/party
  • 50% of the members will vote in a way that makes their constituents happy, even if it is not in the best interests of America as a whole or they will vote based on what will get them into the least amount of trouble when they run for re-election or will vote based on the current public perception in their district, even if it is wrong or will respond to who feels the "strongest" about an issue or will respond to polls.

So PR is absolutely critical.

You may not agree with my numbers. That's OK. The main point is that even if you have perfect members, the "swing vote" is very heavily impacted by effective communications. I'm convinced that it is the single, most-important thing for the foreseeable future because I've seen too many good members swayed by effective PR even on issues that are critical to the country (the CAFE vote is a perfect example of this). If you remain unconvinced, please see the Fenton piece.

Winning the PR war

Everything I fund as a philanthropist is essentially meaningless and trivial if great ideas keep getting dismissed in Washington and we adopt stupid short term policies that are long-term disasters. Washington is where the leverage is. Anything I'm doing as a philanthropist is a drop in the bucket if we can't impact public policy in a positive way.

To get traction for responsible plans, we must do a world-class job of political PR. We have to do for progressive ideas what Heritage and CATO do for conservative ideas: market the hell out of them. 

Look how we stack up today (these are generalities...there are exceptions to these characterizations):

Criteria "Black hats" "White hats"
Financing Huge. They might spend $50M on a single issue. Funding is long term and can be deployed flexibly Must raise money on a per issue basis. Typical spend a tiny fraction of what the other side spends.
PR techniques No rules whatsoever.

Whatever works, including misleading advertising. No rules. 

Play by the rules.

Restricted to playing nice and fair. Don't attack the competition. Don't mislead people.

Marketing Market opinions. Market the hell out of every issue, every concept, and every spokesperson worthy of supporting them.  Publish facts and research. Pray that people read it.
Messaging Tests messages to see which have traction. Everyone aligned. Experts in boiling the message down to a sound bite. Consistent and disciplined in delivery. Message is simple to understand. "Smart people" decide which messages to use based on logic. No consumer testing. Groups are independent and often don't reach consensus on messaging so the messages are both poor and inconsistent. Ad hoc groups formed around a specific issue (e.g., stem cells) are even worse. Messages are too complex for average person to understand. Established groups are afraid to run hard-hitting advertising (here's an example that NRDC wouldn't run). Employ the wrong people and focus money and effort in ineffective places.
Ideology "less government", etc. Build momentum over time. No ideology. Issue based. No staying power.
Targeting thought leaders and lawmakers as well as the nation at large Typically no real targeting or strategy
Media proponents Have people like Rush Limbaugh There is no Rush Limbaugh equivalent on our side
Planning Experts on messaging and political strategy. Extremely well organized. Typically ad hoc groups with poor messaging, poor consistency, next to no market testing for how to best package the message. 
Coordination between groups Finely tuned Little to none usually. And when there is a coalition, decisions must be unanimous so nothing controversial or risky is attempted and decision making is slow and hard. For example, for CAMR, there was no central lobbyist/strategy group employed to create the strategy and execute. Instead, individual patient advocate groups lobbied individually.
Command structure Centralized; top down Decentralized or consensus management. The former creates fragmentation; the latter creates decision gridlock.
Time frame Works an issue forever. For example, Privatizing Social Security moved from nowhere to top of the agenda in 4 years. CATO said, "We won't rest or call off our project until people have control over 100% of their money." Coordinated attacks over a long time-frame. Typically, if an issue doesn't get traction in Washington, it's dropped. Not a lot of tenacity to pursue an issue over a long period of time.
Tactics Whatever it takes including publishing things that are untrue. Punish members of Congress who vote the wrong way. Sue people with frivolous lawsuits to harass them. See the book "Blinded by the Right" for a complete list. It's scary. The good guys always play honest and nice. They would never run a campaign to expose to the public how you voted. So there is no downside for voting with the special interests since . So if you vote for what is good for your constituents, you'll be a target of the special interests or conservatives. If you vote with the special interests, nobody will know or care. So if you want to remain in office, it's clear how you must vote.
TV Fox. 

Also have caused all other media such as CNN to move towards the right to avoid being labeled "liberal"
Radio Rush Limbaugh None, although Jim Hightower could be made into a Rush
Legal harassment Judicial Watch None. We're far too nice to do this.
Policy drivers Council for National Policy, Heritage, CATO DLC

I can go on and on.... The book "Blinded by the right" is excellent if you want to see this from the point of view of an insider in the conservative camp. Is it any wonder that nice guys finish last?

I'd suggest forming an organization that can work for the Democratic leadership in Congress that specializes in doing this. That is, we need to form a "white hat" version of the Heritage Foundation that focuses on selling the right thing to do to the American public.

They would study what techniques are most effective for the NRA, oil and auto industries, Heritage Foundation, Christian Coalition, etc.

They would specialize in crafting the right messaging (packaging), testing it, and using very targeted PR for putting pressure on lawmakers to vote in a manner that is in the long term best interest of our country. Whether it is radio or TV or newspapers, etc. this organization would get the word out before the vote and after the vote: we'll let the constituents of members who voted the wrong way on key issues important to the future of America know how their member voted. 

We'll also do the journalism that we don't see in the American press today...getting stories out that need to be what really happened in Texas in education. We'll put members on the spot, like asking Senator Murkowski on camera what his plan to avoid a permanent gas shortage in America is. We need to get the word out. The American public needs to be made more aware that there is zero long term thinking going on in DC and Americans will pay the price very soon. We need to market our ideas effectively, but we don't need to stoop to the manipulation, lying, and "attack" methods of our competition. But we need to publish books, magazines, etc. We need policy papers done like Heritage that would make the case for decent and humane policies -- all the things Heritage does. We need TV, radio, and newspaper ads that expose the truth to Americans...that the Republicans have no plan. We might do polling in the home states of the members who oppose us to educate them on what their constituents really feel and to gauge the impact of our campaigns. We need to leverage Hollywood celebrities in our media plans. We need to out gun the Heritage Foundation.

The organization would know political strategy inside out...who to go to first, how to build coalitions, how to get the relevant existing pro-issue organizations to work together to deliver the same tested messaging, what works for members, what works for the public, whether to do battle in Congress, the White House, or with grassroots support.

For example, in the recent Levin amendment to eliminate the CAFE standards, I read lots of stories about people rallying in support, but no stories of people opposed. Yet the vast majority of people don't want higher gas prices, don't want gas shortages, and want us to reduce global warming. And everyone, including all the Senators, said we needed to reduce our dependence on foreign oil. So why did a huge majority of Senators just vote in a way that most people do not support? The answer is simple: better PR by special interests. A special interest might invest $50M on a single issue. No "white hat" group can match that. It happens over and over again. This has got to change.

One final story...I got an email from one of the groups my foundation supports that quoted Carl Rove saying that "the other side is winning the PR war to permit laboratory cloning for medical research." My folks trumpeted this quote as proof that our efforts were not only effective, but they were so effective that even the other side was acknowledging defeat! Here's my response (this may sound cynical, but it's true):

He's lying. that's a clever PR tactic to:

  • make us complacent 
  • make it look like his side is right
  • gets his side all worked up that they might be losing the war so it motivates them to action 
  • if they should lose, allows them to say, "see, I told you it was about PR and they used PR to defeat us"
  • make a victory look all the more astounding

On the right, "we were taught to frame every battle so that if we won, we won, and if we lost, we still won."

On the right you have ...


The following think tanks and advocacy groups, mostly organized as 501c3s &
c4s, spent more than $200 million last year promoting right-wing causes.
(The list excludes single-issue lobbies like the National Rifle Association,
the National Right-to-Life Committee, etc., as well as industry & trade
associations like the National Association of Manufacturers, the Product
Liability Coordinating Committee, etc. It also excludes millions pumped
directly into the academic sector).


Heritage Foundation
American Enterprise Institute
Reason Institute & Foundation
Empower America (Bill Bennett)
New Citizenship Project (Bill Kristol)
Cato Institute
Rockford Institute
Progress & Freedom Foundation (GOPAC-affiliated)
Hudson Institute (Les Lenkowsky)
Institute for Contemporary Studies
Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation
Manhattan Institute for Policy Research
Claremont Institute
Conservative Caucus (Howard Phillips)
Council for National Policy
Alexis de Toqueville Institution
American Conservative Union (David Keene)


Americans for Tax Reform Foundation (Grover Norquist)
Citizens for a Sound Economy
Small Business Survival Foundation
National Center for Public Policy Research
Atlas Economic Research Foundation
Institute for Research on the Economics of Taxation
National Center for Policy Analysis
National Tax Limitation Foundation
Employment Policy Foundation
Competitive Enterprise Institute
National Bureau of Economic Research
National Center for Neighborhood Enterprise


Center for Security Policy (Frank Gaffney)
High Frontier
Freedom Alliance (Oliver North)
Nixon Center for Peace & Freedom
Center for Military Readiness
Foreign Policy Research Institute
Center for Strategic & International Studies
National Strategy Information Center
George C. Marshall Institute
Hoover Institution
Council for Inter-American Security
Foundation for the Defense of Democracies (Cliff May)


Independent Women’s Forum
Center for Study of Compassionate Conservatism (Marvin Olasky)
Christian Coalition (Pat Robertson)
Equal Opportunity Foundation/Center of the American Experiment (Linda
Focus on the Family (James Dobson)
Family Research Council
Free Congress Research & Education Foundation (Paul Weyrich)
Eagle Forum (Phyllis Schlafly)
Concerned Women for America (Beverly LaHaye)
Center for New Black Leadership
Jesse Helms Center Foundation
Institute for American Values
Conservative Cause (Bay Buchanan)
Clare Booth Luce Policy Institute
Patrick Henry Foundation (Gary Aldrich)
Lincoln Institute (J.A. Parker)
Federation for American Immigration Reform
Our American Values (Gary Bauer)
Traditional Values Coalition (Lou Sheldon)

MEDIA (Excludes for-profit organizations such as Rupert Murdoch’s
operations, Regnery Publishing, Eagle Publishing, etc.)

National Affairs (Public Interest, National Interest)
Foundation for Cultural Review (New Criterion)
American Studies Center (Radio America, Alan Keyes Show, Ben Wattenberg’s
Think Tank, etc)
Center for the Study of Popular Culture (David Horowitz)
Accuracy in Media (Reed Irvine)
Center for Media & Public Affairs (Lichters)
Center for Science, Technology & the Media
Media Research Center (Brent Bozell)
Media Institute
Capital Research Center


Institute for Justice (Clint Bolick)
Judicial Watch (Larry Klayman)
Center for Individual Rights
Federalist Society for Law & Public Policy Studies
Washington Legal Foundation (Dan Popeo)
Landmark Legal Foundation (Mark Levin)
Mountain States Legal Foundation (James Watt)
National Legal & Policy Center (Peter Flaherty)
Legal Reform Coalition (Tort reform)
Civil Justice Reform Group (Tort reform)
American Tort Reform Association


Wisconsin Policy Research Institute
Pacific Institute for Public Policy Research
Commonwealth Foundation (Pennsylvania)
Heartland Institute
American Legislative Exchange Council (national network)
State Policy Network (national network)
John Locke Foundation (North Carolina)
Mackinac Center for Public Policy (Michigan)
Independence Institute (Colorado)


Institute on Religion and Democracy
Institute for Religion and Public Life (Richard Neuhaus)
Acton Institute
Ethics & Public Policy Center


Collegiate Network
Education and Research Institute (M. Stanton Evans)
National Journalism Center (M. Stanton Evans)
Young America’s Foundation
Madison Center for Educational Affairs
Independent Women’s Forum (Campus division)
Leadership Institute (Morton Blackwell)
Intercollegiate Studies Association
National Association of Scholars
National Alumni Forum
Individual Rights Foundation (David Horowitz)
First Amendment Coalition (David Horowitz)

TOP 14 527s (PACs) collected $1.74 million & spent $2.4 million in first
quarter 2002 according to Common Cause.

Republican Leadership Council
ARMPAC (Tom Delay)
Club for Growth
National Tax Limitation Committee
Republican Majority Fund (Don Nickles)
Together for Our Majority PAC (Tom Reynolds)
Campaign for America’s Future (Orrin Hatch)
WISH List (GOP women)
New Century Project (John Kasich)
Republican Leadership Coalition (minority outreach)
National Federation of Republican Women
Majority Leader’s Fund (Dick Armey)
New Republican Majority Fund (Trent Lott)

TOP RIGHT-WING FOUNDATIONS control more than $1 billion in total assets.
(Excludes corporate foundations like the Alcoa Foundation, the Lilly
Foundation, etc).

Lynde & Harry Bradley Foundation
Carthage Foundation (Scaife-controlled)
Earhardt Foundation
Charles G. Koch, David H. Koch & Claude R. Lambe Charitable Foundations
Phillip M. McKenna Foundation
J.M. Foundation
John M. Olin Foundation
Henry Salvatori Foundation
Sarah Scaife Foundation
Smith Richardson Foundation
Castle Rock Foundation (Coors-controlled)
Laurel Foundation (Cordelia Scaife)
Pioneer Fund
Allegheny Foundation (Scaife-controlled)
Scaife Family Foundation
M.J. Murdoch Charitable Trust
Adolph Coors Foundation
DeVos Foundation
Shelby Cullom Davis Foundation
Samuel Roberts Noble Foundation
Starr Foundation
Jay & Betty VanAndel Foundation
Grover M. Hermann Foundation
Gilder Foundation
John & Mary Markle Foundation
Ambrose Monell Foundation
William H. Donner Foundation
Annie E. Casey Foundation
Jaquelin Hume Foundation
Montgomery Street Foundation
Robert W. Wilson Foundation


Organizational structure

Contact me for the URL for this.

Additional resources

"Blinded by the Right", David Brock. Also see Hendrick Hertzberg's review of this book in the New Yorker  (March 1)

The secret comic strip explaining how it all works: