We’ve Been Thinking…

…about the grassroots ethics discussion among public affairs professionals. We had a lively discussion on this topic at Innovate to Motivate led by Dr. Kelton Rhoads, I2M sponsor Liz Welsh of Executive Communications, and me.

Here’s our take on the draft of ethics as created by Stephanie Vance, Anne Darconte, Les Francis, Chris Arterton (GWU Graduate School of Political Management), Tim Hysom (Congressional Management Foundation) and others.

Stephanie kindly asked us for our input, so here it is!
Proposed Grassroots Code of Ethics

Legitimacy. The communications sent as a result of any advocacy campaign should always be delivered either directly from the citizen or with the express permission of the citizen. The role of the grassroots advocacy practitioner should be to provide citizens with the tools they need to deliver their own communications (whether based on sample messages or not) to policymakers.

Unambiguous and good.

Authenticity. Messages delivered from citizens to policymakers should be authentic representations of those individuals’ views on a specific policy issue. In circumstances where communications are being sent based on templates and talking points, practitioners should always provide tools for personalizing the message. At a minimum, grassroots advocacy practitioners should ensure that citizens sending the communications agree, without coercion, with each specific message as developed by the organizer.

Authenticity is “wobbly” because it’s hard to determine who had the “agenda” first, the elites or the roots. Seems this one speaks mostly to influence, which should be allowed. Notice coercion gets a sideways glance in this one, but it’s not the core.

Plus, it’s really hard to “ensure” that citizens agree with the organizer. Any grassroots professional that’s been doing this for awhile has had advocates use the skills gleaned from their organizations to rally against the organization’s position, and there’s nothing the grassroots practitioner can do about that.

Relevance. Grassroots advocacy practitioners have a responsibility to ensure that the communications coming from citizens are relevant to policymakers. This means that tools should be in place to establish a constituency relationship between the citizens and the policymaker. Note that this does not apply to circumstances where a citizen has a personal, non-constituent relationship with a legislator’s office.

We believe this is very problematic, exceedingly problematic, because it implies that the legislator’s agenda is the agenda, and that grassroots must play only a responsive role, not a proactive role, in setting agendas. Further, it adds an ethical premium on the “legislator sets the agenda” idea. Pull grassroots out of the agenda-setting formula, and you’re left with a larger role for ruling elite and media elite to play. It’s undemocratic. The people should be able to set agendas, even if that agenda is “not relevant” as the ruler sees it. It’s a cornerstone of our democracy.

Transparency. Grassroots advocacy practitioners working on behalf of organizations should not take steps to hide those organizations’ involvement in an advocacy effort. Likewise, communications from citizens that are generated as a result of an advocacy campaign should not be given less weight than those developed spontaneously.

Good to avoid deception.

Civility. Grassroots advocacy practitioners should encourage civility in communications between citizens and policymakers. At a minimum, template communications and talking points should be drafted to reflect the opinions of the writer without resorting to excessive negativity or misrepresentations of the other side.

This one will be unenforceable because what’s “excessive negativity and misrepresentation” to one side will be “truth and education” to the other side.

If nothing else, change the negative words to positive words, so it reads “…to reflect the opinions of the writer while adhering to the truth.” You’ll have to jettison the opprobrium of ‘negativity’ altogether; negative information is the coin of the realm in the influence world. Negative emotions are the ones that keep us alive. Positive emotions are slackers compared to negative ones. It’s a human universal.

Honesty. Grassroots advocacy practitioners should never knowingly provide false, misleading, inflammatory, or inaccurate information in an effort to persuade citizens. At a minimum, practitioners should have due diligence programs in place to check the veracity of template messages developed for use in a campaign.

Problematic. This will allow the people in power to determine what is “inflammatory.”  I regularly tell my classes (Dr. Rhoads here) that “honest” is a very low moral standard. I can tell you half of what you need to know (as is regularly done by those in power) and tell you it’s the truth. It’s just not the whole story; and that’s my moral “get out of jail free” card. I only told you about supporting information, no contraindications, and so left you with a distorted idea of what the truth is. Of course, to the speaker, there is no truth in what the opposition says.

Also there is the judgment call on “inflammatory,” which allows someone to call foul for phraseology. I could call “death panels” inflammatory or deceptive (they’re not actively putting people to death), or “living wage” inflammatory (minimum wage is overwhelmingly a supplemental income for teenagers), depending on which side of the aisle I’m on, in an effort to stifle debate and shut the other side up.

The Bottom Line: We would submit that it would be unfair to impose ethical standards for lobbyists that are higher than the people they work with: the media and legislators. Any time you enforce ethical standards on one side and not the other, you take an extreme risk of giving the advantage to the people with the looser ethics. This is captured in the well-worn phrase “nice guys finish last” and has been proven out on a million influence battlefields. Occasionally the person with the higher ethics* (as defined by someone!) wins. But often the person who breaks the rules, and lies, cheats, and deceives, wins. There is a dictum that “Any law that punishes people for being honest, is a corrupt law, because it corrupts people.”

We would hate to see ethical lobbyists lose influence battles because they were unarmed, and their opponents were not.