Avoid the Astroturf

Ever since the late Senator, Lloyd Bentsen called out a fake grassroots movement in Texas by coining the term “astroturfing,” authentic strategic communicators and public affairs professionals have endeavored to operate in the sunlight to avoid their work from being undermined. People can “tell the difference between grassroots and astroturf,” Bentsen explained in 1985.

More than 35 years later, some in the communications industry continue to operate in the shadows to mask the motivations of those working to influence debate, public opinion, or legislative action.

What these corner-cutting communicators fail to realize is they are harming the very cause they are charged with promoting. Why? Because without authenticity and disclosure, a real movement cannot be sustained.

When a journalist, activist or lawmaker asks where an organization gets its funding, or who is behind the signs, t-shirts, websites, and bumper stickers, there had better be a good answer. Otherwise organizers will be exposed – and their cause will only suffer. This exact scenario is currently unfolding in the travel and hospitality industry.

The Travel Technology Association (Travel Tech) is openly defending one of its members, Airbnb, that has fallen victim to an astroturfing attack.

A group operating under the name AirbnbWATCH claims to be a “watchdog” organization that shares “Short-Term Rental Horror Stories in America.” It has been actively and relentlessly attacking the short-term rental industry – posing as a loosely organized grassroots organization.

“AirbnbWATCH is actually a group funded by the hotel industry” Travel Tech President Steve Shur told me in an interview. “Hotels are paying for the dissemination of false narratives about their competitors from the shadows.”

Hiding the sources of funding and support behind AirbnbWATCH is a mistake. One would reasonably expect the hotel industry to oppose Airbnb. There is no shame in attacking a competitor directly – or encouraging and inspiring allies to make the case. But an astroturfing strategy is always dangerous.

Shur noted that one way the hotel industry tried to cover up support for AirbnbWATCH was to remove its logo from the “About Us” section of the group’s website.

Communicators work to recruit allies for clients’ messages all the time. Mobilizing grassroots support can provide a useful “echo chamber” for messages – increasing their effectiveness. Having constituents send letters, testify at hearings, and advocate for a particular policy position is incredibly effective. But, it must be authentic, or it will almost certainly backfire.

By shining a light on a false grassroots movement, Travel Tech now has the opportunity to reframe the narrative. The debate is already credibly shifting from the AirbnbWATCH horror stories to the benefits of consumer choice in the marketplace.

The hotel industry has every right to promote the activities AirbnbWATCH undertakes. Yet, it should do so proudly instead of operating in a way that can threaten the perceived legitimacy of its message.

When there is a legitimate case to make to the consumer, businesses and coalitions should be unafraid to put their names behind it. It is why politicians must disclose donors and the Internal Revenue Service demands information about nonprofits on the IRS form 990.

True grassroots movements are sparked naturally, legitimately, and openly – and reflect the will of a particular group of people. Just be sure you’re doing it in the sunlight.

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