Organising vs astroturfing

Where does organising end and astroturfing begin?

The ‘Energy Citizen’ rallies organised to protest the Waxman-Markey bill have been criticised as an attempt to conjure up a grass roots protest that is in fact supported primarily by energy companies – an allegation helped by the notorious secret memo sent out to members.

The American Petroleum Institute points out it is only one of about 60 organisations involved, but the memo gives a strong impression that the API is a key organiser, “providing upfront resources” and “contracting with a highly experienced events management company”. 

The meetings, the first of which was held in Houston yesterday, are organised under the banner of ‘Energy Citizen’, rather than identifying as being part of industries or particular companies. This isn’t out of keeping with their views: after all, anyone was welcome to attend and, as this video shows, part of the campaign is arguing that the bill would hurt the wider economies of areas with big energy industries.

As the FT noted, most of the attendees at the first of the 20 planned meetings, held yesterday in Houston, were from energy companies which had encouraged their staff to attend (some, such as Anadarko, bussed employees in, according to the Houston Chronicle).

Of course, industries lobby against legislation all the time, and getting employees involved isn’t a particularly dirty trick.

The real question is whether the API was hoping to present the meeting as a kind of spontaneous, grassroots-based event. While the memo could certainly be read this way, with its appeal to treat the information as sensitive so as to not give away the ‘game plan’, the API denies it:

Bill Bush, a spokesman for API, told TPMmuckraker that there’s no deception involved with the rallies. “I don’t think anyone’s hiding the ball about this,” he said. “I don’t think anyone’s trying to suggest that this doesn’t have anything to do with the oil and gas industry.”

At any rate, if the goal was to conceal the industry backing of the event, it failed on this count – despite having a better than expected turnout. We’ve yet to find a story that does not make a reference, usually in the first paragraph, to the fact that the energy industry is heavily involved.

From Bloomberg:

Aug. 18 (Bloomberg) — Houston energy workers rallied against U.S. climate-change legislation at an event that kicked off a plan co-sponsored by the American Petroleum Institute to hold 19 such protests across the country.

From the Houston Chronicle:

Local energy workers jammed a downtown Houston theater today to protest climate change legislation that the U.S. Senate will take up in the coming weeks.

The Energy Citizens rally, promoted by some major energy companies and business organizations as well as the Greater Houston Partnership, is the first of several such events planned in 19 states in the coming weeks.

Here’s what the FT had:

The US energy industry sought on Tuesday to put a human face on its lobbying effort against climate change legislation under consideration by Congress, staging the first of a series of “energy citizen” rallies across the country.

Related links:

US energy industry stages rally against climate bill (FT, 18/08/09)
Secret memo reveals oil industry plan for anti-emissions rallies (FT, 14/08/09)

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