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Monday, Sep 25, 2023

Market Column

From far away, Astroturf looks a lot like grass. It just doesn’t have any roots.

Which is why some clever wag appropriated the term “Astroturf” to describe grass roots campaigns that don’t really originate within a community, but are in fact organized fronts paid for by corporate interests and usually orchestrated by public relations people.

Allegations of Astroturfing recently arose in Westwood, where developer Ira Smedra has proposed building a big cinema/retail project. Standing in the way is the media-savvy Friends of Westwood, a bulldog community organization that has bitten many a strip mall developer or billboard advertiser right in the assets.

So Smedra hired P.R. firm Carl Terzian Associates to neutralize the Friends of Westwood by creating a pro-development community group.

Is this Astroturfing? It is according to Friends of Westwood, which claims that the Terzian-formed group Westwood 2000 is nothing but a front for Smedra. But Frank Ponder, who has been general manager of Westwood-based Bel Air Camera since 1971, and agreed to become co-president of Westwood 2000 because he believes that Smedra’s development would be good for the business community, takes great offense at being told he’s just a front-man.

“All (Terzian) did was a lot of the legwork that those of us with real jobs don’t have time to do,” Ponder said.

Westwood 2000 is only one of dozens of groups created by P.R. agencies in L.A. in recent months to fight political battles. The Coalition to Keep L.A. Working, a group of business leaders assembled to oppose the living wage ordinance approved by the L.A. City Council last month, was built by a San Diego P.R. firm called Nelson Communications Group. Currently, Hill and Knowlton Inc. is organizing business leaders in support of the construction of a coal export facility to be built at the Port of Los Angeles by Los Angeles Export Terminal Inc.

The people who build political coalitions like these maintain that just because a group is assembled by a P.R. firm, that doesn’t make it illegitimate. In fact, they say that because politicians have become very savvy at spotting Astroturf campaigns, it is critical to find a large group of community members who genuinely believe in the cause they’re advocating.

“I think that when coalition-building backfires, it’s when (allegations of Astroturfing) are actually true. If you cannot create a real coalition, you run a huge risk,” said Lynne Doll, an executive vice president at Century City-based Rogers & Associates who handles public affairs marketing.

So how do you build a legitimate coalition? According to Doll, it’s mainly a matter of communication and education.

Last year, Rogers & Associates was hired by a group of five private, non-profit hospitals in the San Bernardino area that were threatened with extinction by a giant medical center being built by San Bernardino County. The facility was already 30 percent built at the time Doll was brought in, but her job was to generate political support for a movement to decrease the size of the center and thus make it less of a threat to existing hospitals.

The problem confronting Doll was that most people didn’t know or care very much about the medical center. Her firm performed market research showing that the issue people really did care about was crime. So she launched a promotional campaign pointing out that the $647 million medical center would take tax dollars away from the sheriff’s department and the district attorney.

Rogers & Associates recruited a group opposed to the medical center called Concerned Taxpayers for a Healthy San Bernardino, by looking up people who had opposed the center during its approval process years earlier.

“It’s almost impossible to find an issue where you can’t find someone who agrees with you on it,” Doll said.

The agency also launched a full-scale advertising and P.R. blitz, complete with full-page newspaper ads, direct mail pieces, speakers at community events, op-ed pieces and media solicitation. The upshot of all this was that county supervisors eventually agreed to cut the number of beds in the medical center by 25 percent.

Doll usually advises her clients to keep the work of Rogers & Associates behind the scenes, so adversaries don’t make political hay out of the P.R. firm’s involvement (as Friends of Westwood is doing with Terzian). Doll almost never talked to the media herself, but advised the local hospital spokespeople who were more known and trusted by local reporters on what to say.

But Robert Alaniz, managing director of the public affairs division at Hill and Knowlton, thinks that kind of covert operation can be percieved as underhanded by the opposition if it’s discovered.

He makes no bones about his firm’s involvement with building community support for the LAXT coal terminal, and sees nothing wrong with being paid to influence a political debate.

“There generally tends to be a silent majority out there,” Alaniz said. “Some people are just not as savvy in terms of communications as other people, and our job is just to teach them how the media operate.”

Los Angeles Business Journal reporter Dan Turner covers marketing, entertainment and media.

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