When Does Grassroots Advocacy Become Astroturf?

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Down in New Orleans, a proposed natural gas-fired power plant is in serious trouble — in part because the energy company behind it got caught creating a fake grassroots campaign.

To counter local organizing against its project, Entergy hired a “grassroots” advocacy firm called the Hawthorn Group, in part to encourage supporters of the plant to show up at City Council meetings. So far, nothing too sketchy — political advocacy is almost always going to involve SOMEONE spending time or money to encourage others to take action.

Here’s where things went ludicrously wrong: the Hawthorn Group hired a company to pay ACTORS to attend the meetings, who in some cases read testimony from a script. Meanwhile, Entergy did its best to hide its involvement in the turnout operation.

Naturally, the word started to get out, and as I recently told New Orleans Advocate reporter Jessica Williams, Entergy found out why this kind of “astroturfing” (fake grassroots) strategy has a few flaws:

“When you are organizing people, you should be transparent about it…part of the reason is ethical. But part of the reason is practical. If you’re not upfront about what you’re doing, you risk this kind of blowback.”

Though the New Orleans city council originally approved the plant’s construction, it now has new members — and the project itself may be in jeopardy. If it goes down, count this situation as a self-inflicted wound:

Delany, the Washington strategist, said that aside from not hiring actors — an approach he said is “always going to cross the line” — Entergy should have been more upfront initially about its ties to everyone in the orange shirts.

“It’s that old line about how ‘if you can fake sincerity, you’ve got it made,’ ” Delany said. “Once people see your outreach as insincere, it’s going to lose effectiveness really fast.”

While the council ended up approving the plant on a 6-1 vote March 8, five new members took office in May.

The body has since changed its policy to require everyone who addresses it to disclose whether they have been paid to be there, and members say that reconsidering the earlier approval of the plant is a possibility, depending on the results of the independent probe.

“If this torpedoes the project, the company has no one to blame but itself,” Delany said. “Because this was an avoidable problem.”

Kids, please don’t try this at home! Let your advocacy be transparent and your activists genuine — or you may pay a hard price.

BTW, this story has a small personal angle — I was born in New Orleans (Metairie, to be precise), my father is from there, my mother went to school there, and they met there. And, I got to send him the link to his son’s quote in a New Orleans paper on Father’s Day!

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