Special Interest Group Coalitions : Grassroots or Astroturf? : Establishing Ethical StandardsTo Develop or Evaluate Broad-Based Support Efforts
Bodensteiner, Carol Ann Denter
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This thesis is a study of special interest group use of the coalition technique to accomplish a public affairs agenda. The study provides a brief overview of the history of special interest group activity in the United States; discusses the legal restrictions placed on special interest groups by the laws of the State of Iowa and the United States of America. Further, this study considers the ethical implications of these actions in the context of the professional codes of the Public Relations Society of America and the International Association of Business Communicators. The study is based on in-depth interviews regarding the operation of four coalitions which were formed to accomplish public affairs agendas at local and national levels. At the local level, the coalitions were formed by a for-profit corporation seeking to influence a ballot initiative. At the national level, one coalition was formed by a trade association and the other was formed by a foreign government. Each sought to influence a national public policy debate. The media coverage of these coalitions by "elite" media was analyzed to ascertain if the media performed in a watchdog capacity, informing the public if/when illegal or unethical actions occurred. Coalition activities were analyzed in the context of professional codes since coalitions are often formed and operated by public relations professionals. The question considered in this thesis was whether, by the analysis of cases histories, media coverage and ethical codes, gudielines for the ethical formation and operation of coalitions by special interest groups could be established. The findings of this study are that coalitions perform an important role when they represent a broad public interest, the "grass roots;" however when coalitions are formed without consideration for true representation of a broad citizen base, they may be deceptive, unethical and Astroturf-type front organizations, potentially damaging to the public interest. The media can play an important role in protecting the public interest by performing as diligent watchdogs, however they do not always rise to this responsibility. The public relations profession bears the brunt of media and public concern where unethical coalition activity occurs. Ethical guidelines for use by public relations practitioners, the media and the public are offered.