Saturday, October 15, 2011

How to Tell Astroturf from Grassroots

In July, the press pointed out Northern Pass's efforts to pass itself off as popular among average citizens in New Hampshire through the use of  "unmistakably folksy" ads. This blog looks at Northern Pass's new "astroturfing" campaign -- and at a new pro Northern Pass website that also claims grassroots origins.

What is "astroturfing"?

Astroturfing is a form of advertising advocacy in support of a corporate, political, or organizational agenda, designed to give the appearance of a "grassroots" movement. (Read more on astroturfing here.)

The term is derived from "astro turf," an ersatz or artificial grass that takes its name from its early use in Houston's Astrodome Stadium.

The Public Relations Society of America condemns as unethical the extreme form of this practice, "front grouping," in which groups are used to front for corporate or political interests.

Astroturfing and

Two weeks ago, Northern Pass posted a link on its website ( to an external site, The link is on the top right of Northern Pass website pages. is a "folksy" collection of videos and pro-project statements designed to look like spontaneous grassroots acclamation of Northern Pass. It pulls together some material that used to be on the project site and some apparently new material and puts it on the external site. stays just this side of "front grouping" by putting the NP logo on the upper left. But if the site isn't "astroturfing," it's hard to imagine what is.

(There's some greenwashing on the site too. The EPA does not call Big Hydro "clean" energy.)

Astroturfing and the New Hampshire Coalition for Sustainable Energy (

The NHCSE site lurked on the internet as an orphan all through August. It was registered to a Bob Craig, who runs an advertising business in Chagrin Falls, Ohio. In this early state, the site claimed that the Coalition for Sustainable Energy was a "state-wide, grassroots group of proactive New Hampshirites from all walks of life who support the Northern Pass Project because the future of New Hampshire depends on it." It still makes that claim. No other sponsors or backers were named.

This supposed new "state-wide grassroots group" from all walks of life has a single agenda, a sole rationale, and a big advertising budget (type in "Northern Pass NH" in the Google search box, and a NHCES sponsored ad pops up on the right or bottom margin). That suggests astroturfing. At least in the beginning, true grassroots movements tend to be more local, scattered, spontaneous, multifaceted, individualistic, unfunded. They don't spring into life fully formed like Athena from the head of Zeus. Astroturf does. Roll it out and you've got grass, albeit fake grass.

When the NHCSE site was officially rolled out on October 10, 2010, it named its sponsors, and they are anything but grassroots: the IBEW (International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, local not specified) and the Small Business and Small Industry Association of New Hampshire (SBSIA).

The NHCES's spokesperson is a professional advocate: Joe Casey, business manager for Local 490 of the IBEW and president of the NH Building and Trades Council. According to its inaugural October 10 blog, also promoting NHCES is one of the most active lobbyists in Concord, Bob Clegg, head of the SBSIA. In 2011, Clegg is registered to advocate for no fewer than 18 separate businesses, associations, and other groups.

Who our alleged grassroots CES "neighbors" all over New Hampshire are is anybody's guess.

What is Grassroots?

True "grassroots" action looks like the following letter to the editor from Lynne Placey, a Coos resident, explaining why she recently chose not to sell out to Northern Pass. Lynne is not a lobbyist, she doesn't represent anyone except herself, and she doesn't stand to make any money on what she says; in fact, she has turned down Northern Pass's offer of cash for her land.

I am a widow, living on a
small amount of Social Security,
plus a small income from
giving piano lessons. Can you
imagine what half a million
dollars would do for me? I won’t
tell you I didn’t give some
thought to all that money. The
gold-plated carrot was dangled
in my face. Would I bite?

That afternoon I was at the
hairdressers expressing my
concerns about this offer. The
daughter of another landowner
who had been offered a contract
by Northern Pass was there
and heard me. When I got home
her family contacted me. They
offered to show me the contract
they had requested a copy
of and explain what their experience
had been thus far. I
went to their home that evening
and was horrified to see
the discrepancies between what
they said to the landowner and
what was actually in the written
contract. I knew beyond a
shadow of a doubt that this was
not something I wanted any
part of.

My conscience, my ethics,
my devotion to New Hampshire’s
beauty, the memory of
my husband, the love for my
children and grandchildren, my
concern for the health of those
living near the towers, and
more were all factors in my

Lynne Placey is one of the multitude of real New Hampshire citizens who oppose Northern Pass and will never sell out to it. She has kept in touch with what the project does by means of a word-of-mouth email list. In turn, after her experience with Northern Pass, she has empowered herself to speak up and tell others about it. Nobody told her or paid her to do it. People will respect her integrity and her advice. This is what real grassroots is and does. And this is why Northern Pass will not succeed. Astroturf fools no one. Its arrogance simply insults real New Hampshire citizens.

(Read the full text of Lynne Placey's letter here, pp. 4-5.)