Get to know your stakeholders before astroturf does

Authored by Kelly Ferguson

A few months ago before the end of 2023, Claudine Gay was bulletproof. She was Harvard’s first black president, her background in race and politics seemed to meet the cultural moment, and she had the backing of the most important people at America’s most esteemed educational institution.

But by the first week of 2024, Gay was gone. The shortest tenure in Harvard history took place because a relatively little-known academic and conservative provocateur, Christopher Rufo, exposed her plagiarism and made it an issue that nobody—from the far-right to the far-left—could ignore. 

Rufo’s self-described strategy to “smuggle” the plagiarism facts and narrative across the political aisle was denounced by Gay’s defenders, but it is simply the strategy every effective David has used to beat Goliath. Martin Luther King, Jr. didn’t just appeal to disenfranchised black Americans; he smuggled his narrative across the racial, cultural, and political aisles. The LGBT movement made huge inroads with Christians by appealing to Christian principles of tolerance, charity, and fairness. And a little-known state senator from Illinois named Barack Obama leveraged an impressive convention speech into a landslide presidential win in just four years, with some help from Ted Kennedy — practically political royalty at the time.

President Barack Obama in East Room at 2nd session Health Summit listening to Sen. Edward Kennedy. (2009)

Conservatives should especially become students of the smuggling strategy because it’s an election year, and the influence war is on, from Washington to Main Street. The left adeptly used the funds of deep pocketed donors to create local waves in 2020 and 2022.  In 2024, they will continue barnstorming states, regions, and localities to win minds, hearts, and votes. True grassroots activists cannot allow themselves to be overwhelmed by pop-up groups that are well-organized and have heart-wrenching narratives.

Here’s how to get ahead of the moneyed powers that are coming down the pike.

Who are they targeting?

Rufo referred to his work as “smuggling” the Claudine Gay story into center-left media; there was nothing covert about his approach, but grassroots activists also looking to make a big impact may feel unequipped to face their opponents head on. And that’s understandable as more and more state and local political wars are fought with big national dollars from nebulous sources. 

These groups can’t lobby, but they can swing public perception and influence elections through advertising, “educational” efforts, and voter registration drives, just to name a few examples. They create groups that appear locally grown at first glance, to give a patina of local or state-level legitimacy to a national group that wants to hide its fingerprints.  

Left leaning groups have leaned hard into this method of campaigning, and have some results to show for it. The New York Times reported that in 2020, the top Democrat-aligned nonprofits spent about $1.5 billion, while their Republican counterparts spent $900 million. These funders also made midterm records in 2022, with shadowy groups contributing over $300 million to Democratic political committees. 

It’s easy to think that money is everything. However, until recently, I worked as a Washington lobbyist, representing Fortune 500 companies and scrappy industry associations alike. I learned, and applied for clients, the principles of influence that have a lot less to do with money and a lot more to do with building real trust and real relationships with those whose reputations matter to voters and constituents. While astroturf groups can make a well-funded case for their cause, it is people who are most invested in their community who can make a bigger impact. 

  1. Elected officials already have some level of public trust, and their interest is in keeping that trust by promoting causes that keep them in office. For a Member of the U.S. Congress, show them data specific to their district, mention their name in regional media coverage, and use social media to show both district and wider support for your position on specific issues. For local officials, they are more likely to be available to attend events in-person, and so it’s worth asking them to help you cut a ribbon or speak at your rally. 
  2. Business leaders often have influence across the aisle and can create trusted conversations with political leaders and average people alike. Business trends can also influence public opinion. In my area of Northern Virginia, it’s not uncommon to see signs in the window of local businesses supporting social justice causes. On the converse, if there’s a local battle over restaurant taxes, you may see local restaurants vocally opposing it, putting their customers on notice where they stand and how their quality of life may be affected. 
  3. Community leaders, including religious and education leaders, may not be able to officially endorse candidates. But they often engage in “voter education” and remind their audiences how faith and politics, education and politics, or politics and community culture may be connected. The late Jerry Falwell was incredibly influential in the Republican Party on a national level, and local religious leaders can be just as influential with their own flock. 
  4. Media voices are often beloved because they are literally a voice in the community. Although less common now, there was a time when national news anchors held the same esteem. In early 1968, CBS anchor Walter Cronkite concluded on-air that the Vietnam War was lost; then-President Johnson lamented to his advisors, “If I’ve lost Walter Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America.” Just one month later, Johnson announced his intention not to run for reelection, ending his political career.

What’s your strategy to get ahead?

There are a few ways to reach these influencers before the big money does. 

1. Be credible. Guard your credibility as one of your most precious assets—especially if your financial assets are lean. Credibility means telling the truth, yes, but it also means standing firm in your unique role, and offering your perspective in a way that others cannot. 

Grassroots activists and local groups often have an advantage here over well-funded PR campaigns or lobbying efforts. For example, in my lobbying days, my colleagues and I mounted a campaign to pass a law that would reduce how often surgical patients are prescribed dangerous and addictive opioids. We had data—and Capitol Hill relationships—to help make our case that this was a real problem that required congressional action. 

The data gave us a ton of credibility to set up meetings and be heard. But what really drove home the victory—and led to the passage of legislation—was the heart-wrenching stories of people who became addicted during weeks or months of opioid use. These weren’t emergency room drug seekers or drug smugglers or Big Pharma salespeople. They were everyday people who followed their doctors’ advice—and ended up suffering, along with their families, from addiction.

And although the media landscape is changing, local voices will still win the day in many cases. In fact, some media giants have recently altered their policies to promote local expert voices instead of partisan opinion pieces. 

2. Build relationships. Conservatives are skeptical of the media, educators, and elected officials —and not without reason. But as the saying goes, if you don’t grab a seat at the table, you’re on the menu. It’s worth opening dialogues with all of these people because if they trust your credibility and your desire to help the community, they will include you in the conversation. And if what you’re bringing to the table is truly innovative and ground-breaking—like Rufo’s research or MLK’s message—you may be the reason everyone’s at the table in the first place. 

Martin Luther King Jr. statue in Denver Colorado’s City Park for his annual parade and march or marade, one of the largest Martin Luther King Jr. rallies in the nation.

You may be especially cynical about building relationships with the media. That’s understandable, but you can still make the media your allies by offering what we call the 3 T’s

  • The right topic. Keep an eye out for timely news events which lend themselves to your news “hook.” When I lobbied for a small, niche manufacturing association, we looked for stories connected to the FDA and cybersecurity, knowing that the media was already writing about those topics. It is easier to fit what you want the public to know, into what they’re already reading—instead of pitching a journalist on a brand-new topic that may not resonate with them, their editors, and their audiences. 
  • At the right time: Don’t pitch a story about the state budget in the fourth quarter. It’s holiday and vacation time, not budget season. 
  • With the right title: Journalists want to hear from spokespeople with a credible or unique point of view. The CEO of a nonprofit is an obvious choice—but going back to my opioid example above, the addiction victim was far more credible than the multi-millionaire leader. For a political example—media gatekeepers expect Republican leaders to oppose Ranked-choice voting. But District of Columbia leaders—read: Democrats —rejected an RCV proposal, in part because it “could suppress the voice and influence of voters of color for decades to come.” That’s a counterintuitive perspective that likely caught an editor’s eyes and ears. 

3. Keep an eye out for well-funded opposition and what their arguments are, so you can beat them to the punch. The Biden administration and its allies have been praising “Bidenomics” after every monthly job survey. And they should—the latest topline numbers on jobs added and the unemployment rate are good. 

But that’s not the end of the story, as anyone who has recently shopped for groceries or attempted to borrow money can attest. About one in four jobs in the last report went to government employees—hardly growing the economic or taxpayer pies! Additionally, other data like inflation and the cost-of-living show that jobs are not the only economic factors impacting households. 

Putting out something with your own spin is a tactic; anticipating your opponents’ plan takes strategy. Make yourself a fly on the wall in your opponents’ war rooms and anticipate what a slick message guru on the other side of the argument can do with the same body of data. Be ready to counter them in advance and in real-time. 

Smuggling past the gatekeepers

The “smuggling” strategy is one that uses other people to push your agenda forward. Rufo would have been ignored by Gay…and was, until donors and left-of-center media voices started echoing what he was saying. But even those voices may not have been enough if truly grassroots voices on social media and elsewhere hadn’t picked up speed and numbers.

The same thing is true in electoral politics. When Ted Kennedy decided to boost then-Senator Obama one week before the most critical primaries in 2008, he “smuggled” the idea of ditching centrist, well-known Hillary Clinton in favor of a more liberal neophyte into the minds of the older, white Democratic electorate. Kennedy’s endorsement virtually handed Obama the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination.

How can you use all the weapons at your disposal—relationships with key influencers, media access, social media, and more —to “smuggle” your narrative into people’s hearts and minds?

Kelly Ferguson is director of public affairs at Proven Media Solutions.

Authored by:Kelly Ferguson


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