Q & A with Ed Walker on “Grassroots for Hire”

by Rasmus Kleis Nielsen

“Grassroots for Hire: Public Affairs Consultants in American Democracy” by Edward Walker (Cambridge University Press, 2014) is a really interesting new book that combines interviews, survey data, and secondary sources to analyze the rise of public affairs consultants in the US, the work they do, and the consequences for the political process.Grassroots for hire

In it, Walker examines the “back stage” work that public affairs professionals do to organize the “front stage” of public participation on behalf of various clients in part by incentivizing, coordinating, and orchestrating engagement.

It is an important book for drawing scholarly attention to one of the many murky areas of political practice that—like much political consultancy, data service provision, development of infrastructures, and the like—falls between the categories usually used by social scientists to understand politics. Public affairs consultants are not easy to fit into the study of political parties, electoral campaigns, interest groups, or social movements, and thus in danger of being overlooked, despite the substantial size and continued growth of the sector.

Everybody talks about the “professionalization” of politics. But few do what Walker does and actually study it.

In his analysis of the sector, Walker shows how repertoires of participation originally developed by advocacy organizations, electoral campaigns, and social movements are commercialized by public affairs consultants who offer them as professional services in a marketplace driven by a growing number of especially corporate clients and trade associations investing in public affairs and other forms of lobbying etc from the 1970s onwards.

The results is an increasingly “subsidized public” where selective incentivization and rational prospecting by public affairs consultants looking to mobilize support for their clients’ interests work to get people involved in particular political processes.

Walker underlines that it is hard for consultants to generate involvement out of nothing and that un-transparent astroturfing and sock puppetry often misfires, so public affairs consultants usually mostly work to selectively and instrumentally channel, encourage, and manage people’s existing motivations. Their work may exacerbate participatory inequalities because they (like most engaged in mobilization) selectively incentivize those already most likely to engage.

Though public affairs consultants are clearly more and more important, and play a greater and greater role in mobilizing (some) people to take part in (some) political processes, Walker does not see commercial, professionalized mobilization as replacing other forms of mobilization and the rise of public consultants do not point towards a “managed” democracy—Walker concludes his book by underlining that his empirical findings generally supports Habermas’ contention that “a public sphere cannot be manufactured as one pleases.”

In September, Daniel Kreiss, Dave Karpf, Matt Powers, and I read and discussed Walker’s book, and below follows an email-Q&A we did with him afterwards about the book.

Email interview with Ed Walker Ed Walker

Q: One of your key concepts in the book is the idea of a “subsidized public.” Was there ever a public that was not subsidized in some fashion by parties, interest groups, or others instrumentally mobilizing people to take part the way corporations and trade associations today increasingly do with the help of public affairs consultants?

A: I think that it’s important to have the historical awareness to know that there have always been various types of subsidies for public participation, ranging from the early third-party mobilization strategies of professionals in the 30s to incentivized mass-telegraphing in the 1940s, up to the Facebook and Twitter campaigns of firms today. And, of course, it goes without saying that campaigns for the hearts and minds of the mass public predate the public affairs consulting industry itself – indeed, forms of elite-driven mass participation reach back into antiquity.

What the development of the “grassroots for hire” industry means is that participatory subsidies have expanded dramatically, in line with a variety of other concurrent efforts to facilitate public engagement through subsidies offered by professionals – these include sponsored deliberative forums and town hall meetings, the founding of advocacy groups and think tanks that serve as third-party supports for industry interests, and numerous other efforts to make it easier to ‘have your say’ in the contemporary context. These broader themes also highlighted in the Democratizing Inequalities volume that I co-edited with Caroline Lee and Michael McQuarrie.

The subsidized public idea does share some similarities with the “managed citizen” notion found in Phil Howard’s nice book on new media campaigns. However, I didn’t want to imply that the work of public affairs consultants can be reduced to simple astroturfing and putting words into people’s mouths so that they can, in turn, voice them to policymakers. They do some of that, but the main story is that consultants provide some of the same participatory incentives as other kinds of traditional grassroots associations, only on a larger scale and usually with better data.

Q: Amongst other things, you look at the background of people who move into public affairs consulting and show that many of them come from electoral campaign work and move into the PA world essentially to get year-round work with a broader client base. Can you tell us more about the changing boundaries of the PA consulting field?  Can we follow the career paths of PA consultants beyond their decision to enter the field?

A: That’s right. The field has an interesting history, in which many of their practices came about in the early part of the 20th century through campaigns by Edward Bernays, Ivy Lee, and the first political consulting firm: Whitaker & Baxter’s Campaigns, Inc. Aside from those early precursors, however, things didn’t really get going until the 1970s.

So, while the electoral consulting profession continued to grow in the middle part of the century, the practice of paid grassroots mobilization, especially backed by business, didn’t really become appealing until after business groups came under fire by Ralph Nader, the public interest movement, and antinuclear and public health advocacy campaigns in the 1970s. At that point, the cause of public affairs consulting was able to draw in a lot of electoral campaign consultants to work on behalf of corporate America, which was increasingly demanding these kinds of services. In doing so, these new consultants could establish more stable revenue flows protected from the severe fluctuations of electoral campaign cycles.

Looking into the career trajectories of public affairs consultants would be an interesting direction for future research. My sense is that now that the field is more established, we are seeing more consulting firms that emerge directly out of advocacy politics and are there to provide services directly to citizen associations, and some of these consultants go back to working for associations afterward. We’re also seeing more conventional lobbying firms die off and get replaced by firms that specialize in grassroots, and so we’re now seeing closer integration of the government affairs and public affairs functions. As the lobbying field shifts toward these kinds of “unlobbyists,” you are likely to see a major alteration in career trajectories.

Q: You are a sociologist, and yet, your analysis in many ways seems to be closer to how a political scientist or an economist might have approached the issue, focused on mapping the population and its properties, understanding the market for the services that public affairs consultants offer. Can you tell us a bit more about the decisions you made in terms of how to conceptualize this field? It seems that many sociological theories, including new institutionalism on the diffusion of innovation, field theory on the forms of capital that structure a field like public affairs consultancy, sociology of the professions with a focus on the formation of forms of expertise and boundary work etc could have been useful?

A: Above all else, I wanted to offer a systematic picture of the field of these consulting firms and their clients, while helping to inform our understanding of advocacy, organizational/organizing processes, and shifting repertoires of participation. You are right, of course, that those topics put one in a position to build from diverse literatures, including my home discipline of sociology as well as political science, policy studies, and management/organization theory. The perspective I develop in the book is synthetic and seeks to learn from insights in these diverse literatures, although my background is as a sociologist who studies organizations and social movements – that distinct perspective is undoubtedly reflected throughout the book.

The resource mobilization theory in the sociology of social movements was, in many respects, the starting point for my thinking on the topic. In their classic 1977 piece, McCarthy and Zald pointed out that as advocacy groups professionalize, you often find that groups have an imbalance in which conscience constituents – those who give resources to a cause although they wouldn’t personally benefit from its goals succeeding – play a dominant role. This is the case with many professionally driven advocacy groups that have a strong role for outside funders and less of a place for grassroots activists; such groups are increasingly important, and yet they don’t fit with our idealized image of civic associations. Ideas like this made me start thinking more seriously about how professionals influence advocacy, and the legitimacy issues they face relative to traditional grassroots associations. So it seemed logical for me to look for ways that this is happening today in the political field. This is also a topic that I’ve written about elsewhere, in research with Frank Baumgartner and John McCarthy.

The book was also certainly influenced by institutionalist ideas, especially those related to strategic action in institutional fields, organizational repertoires, and elites. Let me say a bit about each of these.

Part of the book’s aim is to challenge instititionalist expectations of organizational isomorphism and conformity to environmental pressures. I highlight this especially in Chapters 5 and 8. I would argue that there has been an important but largely implicit assumption in most analyses of social movements and fields that expects that when organizations are challenged by activist groups, regulators, or other stakeholders, targeted organizations will either make concessions to these demands or, if they can get away with it, ignore them. Along with this, I think most research assumes that strategic action takes place mainly on the part of the activist groups, leaving us with a somewhat impoverished understanding of the strategic options that are on the table for targeted organizations. A contribution of the book, I would argue, is to challenge this implicit assumption and expand the range of corporate behaviors we should investigate. It isn’t just grassroots lobbying campaigns that fit this model, it’s also actions like funding closely aligned third-party groups, filing corporate SLAPP suits against activists, filing amicus briefs, firms joining in as supporters of boycotts of other firms, and more. There’s a whole range of strategic actions that firms take that aren’t on most scholars’ cognitive maps. As I’ve argued elsewhere, these kinds of organizational behaviors are consequential for how we understand firms politically and also for how we conceptualize strategy.

I should also note that repertoires are an important concept in the book, and in my view Grassroots for Hire makes us think about how repertoires can cross institutional boundaries and sectors. As I argue at the end of Chapter 2, the development of grassroots lobbying as a commercial activity makes for an important case in which the strategies of civil society groups have been adopted by market-based actors, which is a diffusion process that was made possible by the changing advocacy context starting in the 1970s and 1980s and facilitated by new communications technologies.

Finally, on elites, the book is among a variety of other studies in political sociology and organization theory that are returning to some of classic questions regarding how elites hold disproportionate influence in a variety of societal institutions and shape those fields’ direction. Many of these questions were central in mid-century research, but these concerns faded out of view as analysts became more interested in environmental influences on organizational practices, especially through the conduit of inter-organizational networks. But the book is part of a growing literature that returns the focus, in part, to the role of political elites not only in more subtle forms of “robust action” but more directly in organizing mass participation. This helps to round out one of the blind spots of the vibrant recent literature on social movements and organizations.

Q: In writing up the book, you have used pseudonyms for almost all the consultants and companies you interviewed for your research. There are pros and cons to this in terms of access versus transparency, in terms of being able to do a piece of research in the first place and the ability of others to replicate it or follow up on it later on, and different academic fields have different conventions when it comes to the use of pseudonyms etc. Can you tell us a bit more about what kind of reasoning went into the decision to use pseudonyms here?

A: This is always a difficult decision in this kind of study. In my case, the topic of grassroots lobbying and public affairs work is one that can be sensitive, especially since some of the consultants in the study do engage in contentious “astroturfing” strategies like ghostwriting blogs, creating third-party front groups for business causes, or, more routinely, coaching citizens on the message that their client would like expressed to policymakers. I wanted organizations to be as open with me as possible about their practices and not have to worry that their particular firm was going to be identified because they took part in the research. And I am certain that granting anonymity and omitting identifying details about these firms made them much more willing to have an open and frank conversation with me, and the book benefitted greatly from that decision, in my view.

Of course, for those groups that did not take part in the research, the book builds from public records and news reports to talk about those groups by name, and I think that this hybrid approach helps to give readers a sense about the particular groups we are talking about. The cases at the beginning of chapter 6 do that, for example, for specific consultants that work with advocacy groups.

Lastly, those who are interested in replicating the research aren’t limited by the book’s approach, given the detailed step-by-step account of the research process found in Grassroots for Hire’s eight appendices.

Q: What do you tell graduate students who come to you and ask for advice on how to build on your work. Where is the study of the role of players like public affairs consultants going next, in your view? Should we hope to see comparative work, or perhaps work on how the clients perceive consultants and navigate the market? Should we hope to see work on how the people mobilized feel about the process?

A: I think that the book does open up a new agenda, not just on public affairs consultants and their effects, but also on a variety of topics including public trust in advocacy groups (and its consequences), the other types of strategic corporate political action described above, and also broader questions about the consequences of professionally-facilitated advocacy. I think that doing some more comparative work in this area is also essential, and indeed I’ve made some first steps in a comparative analysis of consulting fields in a recent study.

In particular, it seems important that future research do more to understand how campaigns that engage in the most egregious “astroturf” (i.e. simulated grassroots) strategies affect public trust in both business and in advocacy groups in general. Tactics like creating front groups, paying activists to attend protest events, and selectively disclosing only those ‘sponsors’ who appear not to have a material interest in the cause – all of these can be seen as efforts to deceive the public in order to benefit a paying client. There are strong reasons to expect that when these campaigns are revealed, public trust in all advocacy groups overall is harmed. I’ve been examining this in new research using survey experiments, and the initial results suggest a powerful negative effect, although these effects are somewhat conditional upon the field reputation of the revealed corporate sponsor.

I think we also need to know more about how these campaigns affect corporate bottom lines, similar to how others have studied the effects of protests on stock prices. It seems reasonable to expect that having a third-party “Baptist and bootlegger” coalition emerge in support of your firm would have a positive signaling effect to investors (especially as a firm attempts to manage external challenges such as protests or new regulations), but we need to investigate this expectation with systematic evidence.

Others are also carrying forward ideas related to the book, such as in new work on corporate-sponsored boycotts, strategic responses to protest by corporations, issue advocacy advertising, blurring of sectoral boundaries, authenticity in public participation, and a variety of recentstudies on astroturfing. Hopefully the book will continue to reach additional audiences.

Cover image from Cambridge University Press, photo from UCLA.