I have sat through a lot of presentations over the years featuring public affairs campaigns that enlisted a broad coalition—including lots of “ordinary citizens”—to increase the chance that a particular law would pass (or not). I don’t believe I have ever seen a presentation during which a public affairs pro boasted of reaching out to the “economic elite” specifically. Turns out, public affairs professionals are doing it wrong. Or there’s something they’re not telling us. A new study—not necessarily the first of its kind—presents compelling evidence that the support or opposition of ordinary Americans for any cause or issue “doesn’t matter a whit,” as Kevin Drum explains it. Or, to quote the authors of the academic study in question: “The central point that emerges from our research is that economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on US government policy, while mass-based interest groups and average citizens have little or no independent influence.” On the face of it, this would seem to call into serious question the rationale behind much of the coalition-building that PR and public affairs firms do, although I can imagine several possible responses (or justifications) for trying to recruit ordinary citizens to support the interests of either corporations or economic elites:
  • Convincing ordinary citizens of the rightness of your corporate cause is an end of itself, conveniently accomplished within the context of a public affairs campaign, even if it has no impact on the outcome;
  • It doesn’t necessarily improve your chances of success, but it makes the final decision look better and maybe reduces the likelihood of a backlash;
  • This may be true in most instances, but in a handful of cases, the effect of public support (while small) could make the difference between 49 votes and 51;
  • In cases where there are companies/economic elites on both sides of an issue, ordinary people might still make a difference;
  • This is true of the historic examples studied by the authors, but is no longer true—or will not be true in the future—because of the growing power of social media.
There are probably other arguments for citizen outreach that I am missing, but there is at least enough evidence for public affairs professionals to question whether one of the things we all sort of assume to be obvious is in fact entirely false. All conventional wisdoms need to be challenged occasionally.