Just a few years back, Web sites that spurred people to write letters to Congress, blogs, podcasts and a variety of other electronic communication strategies were a novelty.
Today, they have become an essential tool for business associations, unions and activist organizations to influence legislators and create awareness of issues.
``Electronic tools cannot be a stand-alone tool, but they must be part of the mix,'' said Roger Bernstein, director of state government affairs and grass-roots efforts at the American Chemistry Council in Arlington, Va.
Mr. E-postman, is there a letter for me?
At the heart of that effort is technology that allows members of business associations like ACC, the Society of the Plastics Industry Inc. and the National Association of Manufacturers to send letters to elected representatives after a few clicks. An ACC campaign earlier this year generated 70,000 letters urging legislators to take action to expand the domestic supply of natural gas.
Similarly, in the aftermath of an SPI campaign in August to generate letters to Congress on the problems caused by currency underevaluation in China, ``We have gotten a lot of positive indications that more and more lawmakers will sponsor [the Chinese Currency Act, HR 1498],'' said Karen Toliver, vice president of international affairs and trade counsel at Washington-based SPI.
``That kind of effort from our grass-roots campaign showed that people still cared about the issue, and it breathes life into the bill and creates an environment for the bill to prosper.
``When we talk to Congress about a specific piece of legislation and that legislation is reinforced by letters from members, it gives the message more voice and credibility,'' said Toliver. ``That is an important aspect of lobbying in Washington. Letter-writing has a very powerful impact and that helps us move the ball forward.''
SPI further mobilizes members to write letters through the International Trade Update and ``SPI Link,'' a weekly electronic newsletter it sends to members.
``You can mobilize the industry far more easily'' electronically, said Chris Brown, senior director of federal government affairs for SPI. ``It streamlines the process and makes it easy for our members to write a letter and get involved. They can quickly edit the letter, personalize it and tailor it to their company's situation. Many of them are small and medium-size manufacturers, so they feel their voice is heard more through this mechanism. If I am lobbying an issue, the more constituents that contact legislators, the more it influences them.''
But letters are just one way that associations are trying to get their members more involved. With a simple click, visitors to the Political Action Center on SPI's Web site can find the voting records of legislators, register to vote in either English or Spanish, obtain plastics industry economic and manufacturing data, advice on community involvement, and view sample letters and contact lawmakers on important issues to the industry.
The National Association of Manufacturers in Washington is considered by many political insiders to be at the leading edge of electronics communications, using the medium to involve members, influence legislators and spread its message. Patrick Cleary, senior vice president of communications, also exhorts the value of electronic tools.
``We have collected fantastic, first-person accounts far more articulate and insightful than we can write,'' Cleary said. ``All roads lead to activism. Everything else is chit-chat.''
More activism is also the aim of ACC. ``The goal is to take folks willing to electronically send a letter and identify a small core group that is willing to be involved and be advocates for the issue,'' said Bernstein. ``We call that group of people the `grasstops' - the activists who will take action, attend a district meeting, organize a plant tour. We want to create a stable of people willing to go that extra mile.
``Many of our adversaries have honed the same skills. We are quite new at this and closing the gap. With our opponents, advocacy is built-in. We have to work hard to involve our people, as they have businesses to run.''
The greater involvement of members is only one benefit of electronic strategies, said Cleary. He said NAM has found that information from its Web site works its way into the mainstream.
``We work the same themes over and over again and get it to our members and to policy makers. You see policy makers referring to our statistics.''
Tuning to podcasts
Two months ago, NAM re-launched a one-hour radio show in 50 markets that focused on key manufacturing issues and how manufacturers make things. It uses the Web site www.coolstuffbeingmade.com to showcase how things are made, from tennis balls to chocolate to ginger ale. NAM makes the content available for video podcasts and put it on the popular and free video-hosting Web site YouTube.
``It is getting kids interested in manufacturing,'' Cleary said.
Blogging, hot linking and other Web uses
NAM also has been an innovator in the use of blogs to counteract information that it says is inaccurate and to reach a higher- tech audience than it could with letters to the editor, for example.
``The blog has been an enormous shot in the arm to show that we are hip and savvy,'' said Cleary.
He said traffic to NAM's Web site has tripled since it started the NAM blog, shopfloor.org, two years ago.
``The stuff we write comes up very high on news.google.com,'' said Cleary. In addition, many newspapers have links alongside their online stories that direct readers to blogs written about their stories - like the Washington Post's ``Who's blogging?''
``It gives us the chance to reach the same audience in real time,'' said Cleary. ``I would contend that I am hitting more people than I would with a letter to the editor. It is in real time and available through a simple link that the newspapers themselves post.''
NAM also has bought Google terms so that when the terms are searched, the association's paid ad appears on the right-hand side. ``Even if people don't click on the ad, maybe 10 [million] to 20 million people will see it and know that NAM is driving the fight. The important part is the billboard effect.''
In addition to domain names, NAM also buys ``some defensively so people who wish us ill can't use them,'' said Cleary.
Electronic communications tools are being used by advocates on both sides of the issues
``Now, with one click, you can get the message out to hundreds, thousands and millions of people and the cost does not increase with the volumes of people,'' said Pat Franklin, executive director of the Container Recycling Institute, which provides its Web site visitors such things as packaging facts and recycling rates.
``The capability to communicate electronically has made an amazing difference,'' said Franklin. ``I wish it was more active than it is. But it is helping to level the playing field.''
``Everything we do is to counteract what our opponents are saying about us,'' said Donna Jablonski, director of public affairs at the AFL-CIO in Washington. The organization uses a blog, a Web site with 6,000 pages of information and an e-mail activist program to drum up online as well as offline activism.
``Most of what we do is educating our 9 million members about issues, how their legislators vote and what companies are doing,'' she said. But, increasingly, she said, the AFL-CIO is working to get people to take more of their actions offline.
``E-mail letter-writing campaigns are still effective,'' she said. ``But we want to get our members to take offline action and make our activism work in the community.''
The AFL-CIO's newest tool is the blog it started in April to replace the magazine it published for its members.
``We are getting a different kind of reaction to the blog, because it is so immediate and because it gives us the ability to be heard without the filters from the mainstream media,'' said Jablonski.
Lois Gibbs, executive director of the Center for Health, Environment and Justice in Falls Church, Va., credits CHEJ's Internet campaigns - and the letters they spawn - for putting pressure on companies to discontinue the use of PVC in packaging and for helping to persuade Wal-Mart Stores Inc. not to use PVC in private-label packaging.
Similarly, the Environmental Working Group in Washington has a huge portion of its issues section of its Web site focused on perfluorinated chemicals in its battle with DuPont Co. over the use of the chemical PFOA, or perfluoroctaonoic acid. So does the United Steelworkers. But the USW has not ventured into the use of a blog ``because we think DuPont would take it over,'' said April Dreeke, researcher in the strategic campaigns department of the USW.
Of course, all of these efforts lead to counterattacks. And all sides are aware they cannot rest on their current electronic and Web initiatives if they want to stay ahead of their adversaries.
``We have to continue to use technology to push content out there,'' said Cleary.
Likewise, SPI said it is building its electronic database and adding more e-mail addresses to expand its reach. At the same time, changes under way will enable SPI to be more market-targeted in its e-mail efforts and pick out addresses within a certain region.
Jablonksi of the AFL-CIO agreed with the need for a continuing evolution in electronic strategies.
``Our efforts must change constantly. They can never rest,'' she said. Like the NAM, the AFL-CIO is exploring how to further disseminate its messages through the use of YouTube and the rapidly expanding social network - things like myspace.com, which has 50 million members.
Gibbs at NEHJ also is looking at refinements to its programs.
``We haven't done any blogging,'' she said. ``But we are looking to modify things even more as we learn what works and what doesn't work.''
NAM has the same long-term goal. ``Our goal is to get traffic on an issue and as many eyeballs as possible to view it. We want to get our side of the issue out there, and we want people to understand there is another side of the issue.
``Electronic tools are a quicker way to get information to people, rebut information and reach policy makers and Capitol Hill in real time,'' said Cleary.
What's more, there is no turning back even if the millions of messages from all parties seem to converge into an overflowing sea, he said.
``There is no alternative except to stay in your cave, and we can't do that, either.''