Faking Public Support

06Mar08

The best thing to come out of last week’s FCC hearing into Comcast Corp.’s Internet polices had nothing to do with the subject of the hearing. The purpose of the hearing was to look into the communications giant’s network management practices.

But the thing that tickled me about the news story was the fact that Comcast got caught doing something that Big Cable and other companies have been getting away with for years: packing audiences at government hearings with their own supporters and otherwise planting straws with the intention of creating the illusion of public support for their business policies.

This time Comcast got caught with its pants down, and here’s hoping that the episode will remind public officials and citizens that these companies will do absolutely anything they can get away with.

Last week’s hearing into Comcast’s network management policies was held in a 300 seat lecture hall at Harvard Law School. Critics charge that Comcast paid people to occupy seats in order to prevent those wishing to speak against Comcast from getting in. Once all the seats were filled, people were turned away.

Comcast hasn’t denied paying people to fill seats, claiming that they did it only to hold enough seats for company executives. But others insist that the hired seat-fillers stayed planted for much of the day, preventing critics from getting into the hall.

This kind of thing is nothing new, and many officials at various levels of government are on to this tactic. But the companies still do it, because some officials and citizens can still be fooled into thinking they are witnessing a spontaneous groundswell of public support for some commercial development, supermarket or cable franchise.

The same strategy of packing attendance has been employed at local hearings right here in Wakefield. It’s a favorite tactic, not just of cable companies, but of other firms subject to the inconvenience of obtaining local licenses and permits.

The 2006 public hearings on Verizon’s request for a cable TV license in Wakefield are a prime local example. Arriving early to cover one of those hearings, I found the selectmen’s meeting room at Town Hall already packed. I was fortunate to grab one of the last seats.

John Carney, chairman of the Board of Selectmen at the time, immediately saw what was going on as he called the meeting to order. He asked the Verizon employees or retirees in attendance to raise their hands. Carney stopped counting when he reached double digits, and there were still more Verizon people milling around in the hallway as the hearing got underway.

Carney explained that he did not want the hearing to be devoted to employees singing Verizon’s praises.

“I’m sure Verizon’s a wonderful company,” Carney said, “but we don’t have to hear it ten times over.”

Of course, that was exactly the reason that Verizon had asked all those people to come – that, and to fill seats and outnumber those who might have less flattering things to say about the company.

But holding seats and orchestrating testimonials at public hearings isn’t the only way that these companies try to create the illusion of widespread popular support where none really exists.

Sometimes a big city public relations firm with local connections is hired to write letters to the editor in favor of the big box store that wants to come to town. The PR firm sweet-talks local citizens into signing the letters and then releases them one at a time to the local newspapers. Before long, it looks like a spontaneous groundswell of popular support.

Most people can’t be bothered writing a letter, even about an issue they feel passionately about. So when you suddenly see a series of letters in the newspaper from ordinary citizens in support of some retail corporation’s business agenda, it should set off your BS detector.

There may be nothing illegal about big companies marshalling supporters to a hearing or coordinating letter-writing campaigns.

But, as the recent Comcast example reminds us, it’s important that regulators from the local level up to the federal level recognize these tactics. It’s critical for officials to know when they are being manipulated by a corporate player with huge resources and a big stake in the outcome.

[This column originally appeared in the March 6, 2008 Wakefield Daily Item.]

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