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Grass-roots political action groups pay off
When BellSouth Corp. lobbied to pass legislation last Year deregulating the telecommunications business, the company brandished a powerful weapon - its own employees.
With a work force of more than 81,000, the majority of them in nine Southeastern states, BellSouth had no problem getting the ear of members of Congress.
Employees contacted their representatives, both directly and via an automated 800-number. BellSouth also used a World Wide Web site and electronic mail to rally the troops. The cause was important enough: "Baby Bells" won the right to enter the $70 billion long-distance market.
"As the debate went on, our employees recognized the importance of BellSouth being viable in the long-distance business,'" said Bill McCloskey, a BellSouth director of media relations involved with the company's lobbying activities in Washington. "They understand that translates into job growth and job protection."
Several other Atlanta-based corporations are also employing similar political activism. They are experimenting with alternatives to traditional political approaches such as political action committee (PAC) donations and soft money contributions. And they are using the information superhighway to mobilize their employees into grass-roots lobbying.
The new corporate efforts threaten to increase the influence of private money and special interests on public life, say critics that range from public interest groups to labor unions to campaign finance reform advocates.
"Employees who are motivated to do this can provide companies with thousands of individual campaign workers, contributors and influencers to work on political issues that the company considers important," said John Stauber, the editor of PR Watch and executive director of the Center for Media and Democracy, a watchdog group that tracks how public relations firms try to influence public opinion.
In one sense, though, corporations are simply using - and updating - methods that in the past were employed by their consumer adversaries. Having a PAC that makes contributions to candidates may no longer be enough to get the political results that major companies want.
Corporations realize that simply writing checks to a candidate …