Business rolls up its sleeves for grass-roots lobbying

A couple of years ago, the Texas Legislaure was considering a new oil company regulation bill that the executives of Atlantic Richfield Company did not like. Arco's employees apparently did not like it, either, because four busloads of them took a personal vacation day and showed up at the Capitol in Austin to protest the legislation and speak to their lawmakers about it.

The Arco employees were part of what Edward A. Grefe likes to call a "legislative support system" designed to give US corporations the clout that has long been enjoyed by such organizations as consumer groups, environmental action committees, and unions.

"If you have an organizational at the grass- roots level," Mr. Grefe says, "and you have a large number of people who can write letters and make phone calls, you have real political power."

Mr. Grefe admits these words may sound like something that groups advocating various regulations for business might say, but he is not embarrassed to tell corporate executives to borrow some of their enemies' tactics. To help them do this, Mr. Grefe, head of his own public-affairs and political-risk consulting firm, has written a how-to handbook for executives and public-affairs people who want to find, bring together, educate, and mobilize all the groups that are -- or should be -- interested in seeing things from the company's point of view and helping the company win some of its legislative and regulatory battles.

In addition to employees, the people to be mobilized might include other executives, suppliers, banks, insurance companies and agencies, transportation companies, and local officials and residents.

The book, "Fighting to Win: Business Political Power" (New York: Law & Business Inc./Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. $35), also tells public-affairs people how to identify issues early which might affect their company and how to organize to deal with them.

While Mr. Grefe believes divergent groups, particularly employees, can be brought together into an effective force to deal with issues that affect the company, others are not so sure.

"Beyond the top executives and upper middle management, there is not much institutional loyalty in companies these days," commented Roger Craver, president of a Washington-area fund-raising firm. "Anyone who has that big a belief in the theology of institutions is in for some surprises."

The fact is, Mr. Craver says, most employees today simply are not loyal enough to the company and its long-range goals to become involved in the political process, whether that involvement means writing letters, making phone calls, stuffing envelopes, knocking on doors to explain company positions, or even taking vacation days to lobby in capitol buildings.

"I have no doubt there are some companies, especially small, highly entreprenurial firms, that have a 'cause' orientation and can get their employees motivated in this way," he said.

Despite his skepticism, Mr. Craver, who has helped raise money for groups like Common Cause, acknowledges that corporate and conservative groups "have taken a leaf out of the left's book and are using it pretty well."

He adds: "My only concern is if they resort to intimidation." This, he explained, can be as simple as a suggestion from the bosses that employees become educated to the company's view. A worker may feel it is necessary to go along in order to keep a job or ensure a promotion.

But even the mildest intimidation is not necessary, Mr. Grefe contends, if the employer can show that it is not the boss who is threatening the loss of a job, but the laws or regulations in question.

An example of how this has been used effectively, he noted in an interview, is in the US auto industry, where carmarkers have joined with the United Automobile Workers and other unions to pressure Washington for some limits on the import of Japanese automobiles. He believes this company-union-government pressure played a role in the decision by the Japanese government to ask automakers there to voluntarily hold down exports to the United States.

"Unions represent a very natural ally when putting issues before the public," he says.

Before the company can enlist the aid of anybody, he says, it has to identify the issue.

"Most companies," says Michael J. Malbin of the American Enterpise Institute, "do a rather bad job of tracking the issues that come before them, particularly large and diverse corporations."

One way to track the issues, Mr. Grefe says, is to watch particular geographic locations where new trends and ideas often start or take hold.

Among the US cities that fit this description he includes Boston, New York, and Dade County (Miami), Fla. The states most likely to be trend-setters are Massachusetts, California, Oregon, Wisconsin, and Illinois. On the international level, he points to Sweden, where he cites a new law that outlaws spanking as an example of the sort of social thinking that can spread around the world.

Mr. Grefe is careful to distinguish between public relations and public affairs. The former, he says, essentially tries to put the best light on an existing situation. The latter is concerned with tracking issues and keeping the chief executive officer aware of them. The public-affairs officer must also be prepared with an array of possible consequences of company actions and solutions on how to deal with them.

"The idea of putting a public-affairs officer close to the ear of the CEO is gaining favor," said Dr. Malbin of the American Enterprise Institute. "And we're even getting some people as CEOs who have themselves been in public affairs."

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