PR: The problem
By Steve Kirsch
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:
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:
The most important thing though is this simple empirical fact:
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):
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 told...like 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):
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
Americans for Tax Reform Foundation (Grover Norquist)
FOREIGN & DEFENSE POLICY
Center for Security Policy (Frank Gaffney)
Independent Women’s Forum
MEDIA (Excludes for-profit organizations such as Rupert Murdoch’s
National Affairs (Public Interest, National Interest)
Institute for Justice (Clint Bolick)
MAJOR STATE/REGIONAL THINK TANKS & ADVOCACY
Wisconsin Policy Research Institute
Institute on Religion and Democracy
TOP 14 527s (PACs) collected $1.74 million & spent $2.4 million in first
Republican Leadership Council
TOP RIGHT-WING FOUNDATIONS control more than $1 billion in total assets.
Lynde & Harry Bradley Foundation
Contact me for the URL for this.
"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: