By Dick Martin



martin1According to The Wall Street Journal, technology companies are "considering mobilizing a grassroots campaign to rally public opinion around the idea that the Internet's pipes should be equally open for all."

I'm shocked. Next, you'll tell me there's gambling in Nevada.

The issue that has so many technology companies in a lather concerns the Internet's plumbing and goes by the moniker "net neutrality." It's really too complicated for this posting. But this grassroots thing is worth a few words.

Grassroots campaigns are like gardening without getting dirt stains on your knees. Someone else does all the work. Or at least appears to.

Wrangling third-party endorsements is one of the things that separate public relations from advertising. In the early days, PR practitioners searched for influential people who were willing to be associated with their clients' products. For example, back in the early 1900s, PR guru Edward Bernays represented one of the nation's big bacon producers. He asked doctors if they thought people should eat a "heavy" breakfast. Then he used their overwhelming agreement to promote ham and eggs as "the breakfast doctors recommend." You can see the results today on every diner menu. Ham and eggs are now as American as apple pie (not, as far as I know, a Bernays client).

Third parties are just more credible. And the best third-party support a Big Company can ask for comes in the form of all the little guys who are on its side. Since that's as common as four-leaf clovers in the Utah Salt Flats, most companies try to organize their own bands of little guys.

We did this when I was at AT&T.

Initially, we sought out groups that already shared our position on a public-policy issue. Believe it or not, there were some.

Then we sought out groups that might agree with our position if they were made aware of it. There were more of those, and since we already supported many of them financially, it wasn't hard to get their attention.

Finally, if the issue were really complicated or controversial, we'd hire someone to mount a campaign on behalf of all the little people who would be affected. More often than not, other big companies that had a dog in the fight would help us fund the effort. We'd give the campaign a friendly-sounding name, like "Voices for Choices," and hire someone like a former White House spokesman to front it.

I wish I could say our grassroots campaigning was always done with what we now call "transparency." Alas, there were times when I wasn't even aware we were backing some of these groups. And according to some reports, after I left, AT&T's charitable giving became an extension of its lobbying effort. And a lot of those grassroots campaigns became as artificial as AstroTurf.

Which brings me back to the shocking news with which I started this posting. The technology companies that are "thinking about" mounting a grassroots campaign to keep the Internet "open to all" may be a little late. Guess who is among their opponents? AT&T, of course.

The Conference Board Review is the quarterly magazine of The Conference Board, the world's preeminent business membership and research organization. Founded in 1976, TCB Review is a magazine of ideas and opinion that raises tough questions about leading-edge issues at the intersection of business and society.