James Carville, the self-described Ragin’ Cajun and President Bill Clinton’s chief political strategist, is famous for observing during the 1992 elections that “It’s the economy, stupid!”
Today it’s all about social networking, and interest groups that “get it” will be the ones that succeed because online grassroots mobilization is fast becoming the political coin of the realm, especially for those whose political action committees never will be flush with cash.
Truth is, it has never been easier to create an army of like-minded allies around an issue that’s on the public docket. Thanks to the rise of social media you can now go directly to the public with a plea and a plan to support a bill or oppose a government proposal. You don’t need a public policy maestro, cruise ship social director or any type of intermediary to make a connection anymore. You don’t even need a mailing list or a database.
Ordinary Americans from all walks of life have shown how easy and effective it is to harness the connectivity of the Internet. Savvy interest groups and industry associations can take a page from some of these high-profile cases.
Although Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter are essential in building a grassroots following around a particular issue, the website Change.org is making waves and becoming the focal point for transforming disparate individuals into group action.
Recall the brouhaha last fall when a 22-year-old nanny working two jobs launched an online petition asking Bank of America to rescind its proposed $5-a-month fee for customers who use debit cards to make purchases? In less than a month BOA folded like a cheap suit in the face of an online petition with more than 300,000 signatures. That 21,500 people also pledged to remove their money from BOA accounts probably helped, too.
More recently, this social networking site was used to persuade Enterprise Rent-a-Car to reconsider renting vehicles that the manufacturers had recalled. The mother of two daughters who were killed after their recalled Enterprise rental car allegedly caught fire from leaking power-steering fluid had been campaigning since 2004 without much luck until she turned to Change.org.
According to a recent article in the Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call, it took 48 hours for a Change.org petition garnering 150,000 signatures to force Enterprise, the rental car industry’s most powerful lobbying force and biggest political donor, to the bargaining table. Enterprise, by the way, spent nearly $1 million on lobbying in 2011, almost four times the amount spent by Avis and Hertz combined.
Or how about the case in which a National Park Service ban on plastic bottles in the Grand Canyon was about to be nixed, allegedly because of opposition from Coca-Cola? A petition was launched on Change.org and it generated more than 100,000 signatures. Soon thereafter the Park Service announced a ban on sales of plastic water bottles in Grand Canyon National Park that went into effect in March, along with a new process for all national parks to adopt similar bans.
Launching a petition on Change.org is exceptionally easy, as the site provides some very handy information about how to start, target and promote an online petition.
Change.org is a tool made to order for recreational boating, which begins as a community of like-minded folks pursuing many activities on a wide variety of vehicles held together by their love of the water. With its passionate fan base, boaters can be mobilized to action when needed.
For those of us who have been around long enough to remember William Shatner’s “It’s Not Your Father’s Oldsmobile” commercial — before he became a pitchman for Priceline.com — Change.org is a game changer. Websites such as this have put a new arrow in the quiver of interest groups and associations that need to engage the grass roots and bring pressure to bear on lawmakers and regulators alike.
In contrast to other interest groups, organizing boaters online should be easier. They can be appealed to vertically (sailors, powerboaters, those who fish in fresh or salt water, etc.) as well as reached horizontally in a mass-market appeal.
Case in point. If a free service such as Change.org had been available during the 1990s, the federal boat luxury tax or the diesel fuel tax never would have gotten off the ground. The marine industry would have been able to generate a groundswell of opposition — with tens of thousands of signatures — as fast as it takes an American Power Boat Association raceboat to get up on plane.
There would have been no need to painstakingly stitch together the standard Washington-based lobbying coalition of interest groups. Although they might all be of a like mind, they are often riddled with rivalries and competing interests. During a 28-year career as a Washington lobbyist, I saw the priorities of consumer and industry groups diverge more often than not.
LightSquared’s plan to build a network using frequencies next to GPS easily could have been sunk when exposed to the light of day by an online petition. Proposals such as this often are hatched behind closed doors and they fall apart when their warts are exposed after they are subjected to public scrutiny and pressure.
Change.org should be especially useful for organizing boaters on the state level, where so many issues affecting boaters crop up. Only one state, California, has a full-fledged lobbying operation — Recreational Boaters of California — looking out for the interests of boaters. This social networking site could give boaters a platform they’ve never had before.
A petition at Change.org that urges boaters to oppose a proposed luxury tax in Maryland on boats costing $35,000 or more is a perfect example of what can be done with this social networking tool.
Still confused about all that social media talk you keep hearing about, but never really understood the importance of? Want to get a better understanding of what tomorrow will bring today? Fire up your Netflix account and spend an evening watching two seminal films, preferably one immediately after the other: Sidney Lumet’s 1976 classic, “Network,” and the 2010 blockbuster hit, “The Social Network.”
In the amazingly prophetic “Network,” written by the renowned playwright Paddy Chayefsky, fictional TV anchor Howard Beale uses his on-air perch to encourage viewers to open their windows and yell, “I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore.”
That was so 20th century! Today’s real life Peter Finch need only use the free online social media tools that are readily available to anyone willing to click on a mouse. n
Michael Sciulla testified more than 30 times on Capitol Hill during a 28-year career at BoatUS, where he managed the organization’s government relations and public affairs operations while serving as editor of its 650,000-circulation flagship publication.
This article originally appeared in the April 2012 issue.