MARCH 1996 · VOLUME 17 · NUMBER 3
T H E I R M A S T E R S ' V O I C E
"IF YOU CONTRIBUTE BIG MONEY to a coalition you better be at the table when the decisions are made. ... Broad-based membership is: What does the public see? What do the legislators see? Decision-making is: a core group of three or so people who have similar interests and who are going to get the job done." So spoke Neil Cohen, a vice president of the Beltway consulting firm of APCO Associates, at a 1994 public relations conference in which he outlined the fine art of "corporate grassroots lobbying."
APCO is a leader in the field of pseudo-grassroots lobbying, a practice which allows companies to manufacture supposed outpourings of public support for their agenda. Between 1993 and 1995, corporations spent some $790 million on grassroots lobbying, a jump of 70 percent from the previous two years.
APCO -- which is now orchestrating corporate-backed campaigns in favor of "tort reform" and overhauling the Superfund hazardous waste cleanup program -- provides a broad variety of services to its clientele. These include direct lobbying of Congress, coordinating strategic philanthropic activities and handling "crisis management." APCO's promotional literature even pledges to monitor "emerging grassroots efforts that might lead to or result in negative action affecting clients (such as boycotts or regulatory actions)."
But grassroots lobbying -- which it calls "political support services" -- is APCO's specialty. "[We employ] campaign tactics to create an environment in support of our client's legislative and regulatory goals," says an APCO brochure. "Our staff has written the direct mail, managed the telephones [and] crafted the television commercials."
APCO's clients are mostly Fortune 500 firms, including a variety of tobacco makers, drug companies and insurance firms. They pay APCO to set up bogus "independent" coalitions without apparent links to industry. "You won't read about APCO on the front page of a newspaper talking about our work, but that doesn't mean our work isn't making the front page," reads the promotional brochure.
One recent APCO creation is The Advancement of Sound Science Coalition (TASCC), whose chair is Garrey Carruthers, former governor of New Mexico. TASCC's stated aim is to combat the "consequences of inappropriate science through focusing attention on current examples of unsound government research used to guide policy decisions."
The real agenda of the corporations who fund TASCC is to oppose any safety or health regulations that might impinge on their bottom line. A recent Coalition news release states that U.S. agriculture is being undermined by "exaggerated public fears over pesticides."
Members of this "public interest" group regularly write op-ed columns and the group is itself treated with great reverence by the media. The Denver Post said TASCC would "provide a much need balance to the public debate that often surrounds disputed areas of science."
APCO's most successful effort is its role in creating the Washington, D.C.-based American Tort Reform Association (ATRA), which is leading the nationwide campaign for "reform" of products liability law, the set of principles which make manufacturers strictly liable for injuries caused by their products. An ATRA-backed bill currently before Congress would cap punitive damages at $250,000, even in cases where a company had lied about the dangers posed by its product.
While ATRA maintains its own staff and offices, the "tort reform" campaign is run largely out of APCO's offices. The strategy of Cohen -- who ATRA lists as its "grassroots consultant" -- is to take the complex issue of tort law and reduce it to a question of lawsuit abuse. "Rule number one for me is to stay away from substance," Cohen said in his warmly received address to the conference of public relations flacks. "Don't talk about the details of legislation. Talk about ... frivolous lawsuits, lawsuit abuse, trial lawyer greed."
Under the direction of Cohen, APCO has prepared a series of deceptive television spots, print advertisements and in-flight videos for air travelers. In one, several "fire fighters" complain that they are so fearful of being sued that they hesitate to rescue people in burning buildings. This drew a rebuke from a group of professional fire fighters, with one of its leaders calling the ad "the most asinine thing I've ever seen."
Cohen has also been central to creating a host of astroturf groups at the state level, typically called Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse. APCO currently has "field directors" at work in Maryland, California, Texas, Alabama, Florida, West Virginia and Louisiana.
But Cohen is keenly aware of the need to keep APCO and its clients out of the limelight, as this would detract from the illusion that "tort reform" represents a spontaneous explosion by outraged citizens and small businesses. As he told his colleagues at the public relations conference, "You need to have credibility and that means when you pick people to join your coalition, make sure they're credible. And if they're not credible, keep 'em away. In a tort reform battle, if State Farm ... [or] Nationwide, is the leader of the coalition, you're not going to pass the bill."
In Mississippi, APCO concocted Mississippians for a Fair Legal System for a "tort reform" campaign in 1993. Cohen gloated that weak disclosure laws meant that opponents "didn't really know [what business interests were] at the heart of everything. ... [W]e had 1,500 Mississippians mixed in with who our clients were."
Cohen is not eager to discuss APCO's work outside of the confines of business circles. Asked about who funds his firm's tort reform efforts, he says, "It's firm policy to never reveal who our clients are unless it's a firm requirement. -- Ken Silverstein