The Web: Potentially unlimited outreach from the very first posting. Anyone in the world can view your material at no cost to you that is if they can find or know about it.
We intend here to talk about simple, amateur websites that can be used by citizen activists to get their word out and save (not eliminate!) some of the drudgery and labor that have always burdened grassroots political efforts.
We want to leave you with the sense that doing a website is feasible for you even if your familiarity with computers is limited to merely sending and receiving email and writing documents on your word processor.
We will tell you why we think that a website helped grassroots activists successfully oppose the new CARA trust fund that would enshrine government land acquisition as a new entitlement - and they did it in the face of overwhelming pressure from all quarters to enact CARA! The website helped pass an anti-CARA resolution through the Alaska Republican Party convention even though CARA was designed by Alaska's Republican Congressman and one of its Republican Senators.
Why do a website?
For one, it is a powerful weapon to use when fighting against well financed and entrenched opponents that avoid rational discussion of your issues. They may be covering up special interest monopolization, an abuse of the public trust or its resources. And the opponents may be using expensive, extensive PR and media campaigns, especially those that rely on the incessant repetition of over-simplified bromides.
Websites are a great competitive alternative and equalizer to power such as that represented by political incumbency or monopoly media control.
Second, websites are a viable way to force more accountability in public decision making because they are a low cost way of documenting and disseminating comment and background information concerning the actions of politicians, public officials and agencies. Many times simply "shining the light of day" on activities has a way of ameliorating abuses if participants know they will be observed, documented and placed in the permanent record of the Internet.
An example of this type of website is one prepared by a consumer group that exposed bloated salaries and costs in a cooperative electric utility (www.chugachconsumers.org). Their successful effort replaced an entrenched union-dominated board of directors with independent board members. Electric rate growth was stopped.
This was not possible in the past unless you spent significant amounts of money on media advertising, printing and mailing.
Third, websites are generally the best way to organize material in a very convenient and useful way.
Fourth, through hyperlinks, you can tie in backup and support materials directly to the point you are making. Hyperlinks are also called "hot links" or simply "links" and it refers to words in your text that are highlighted. If the reader clicks such a linked word, he is taken to another page of information that can be used to expand on or backup a point. This is a very powerful way to build credibility for your message. IN FACT, THE HYPERLINK IS KEY TO THE IMPORTANCE OF HAVING A WEBSITE.
SUCCESS STORY - THE DEFEAT OF CARA
CARA - The so-called Conservation and Reinvestment Act (aka Condemnation and Relocation Act). This environmental bill has been on a fast track for passage for two years. Multi-pronged and packed with pork it was supported by all 50 governors, some 5,000 organizations and agencies as well as 90% of Democrats in Congress and about half of the Republicans. It would set up automatic, mandatory spending for an off-budget entitlement for government to, among other things, buy private land. The 15 second CARA sound bite repeated over and over extolls spending money on animals and urban parks "for the children."
Making the case that CARA is terrible public policy requires considerably more then 15 seconds and it posed a rather difficult problem for grassroots organizations trying to present the other side of this issue when taxpayer-financed resources were lavishly spent by incumbent politicians and agency employees on pro-CARA propaganda. In addition, environmental organizations in line to receive CARA grants were highly motivated to open their (tax exempt) checkbooks to promote what at first glance appears to be a motherhood and apple pie program.
Here in New York CARA was touted to distribute $101 million a year in federal monies. CARA propaganda repeated incessantly that "it won't cost you a cent" because it comes from oil company payments from Outer Continental Shelf oil leasing. Not said was that the monies were diverted from being deposited in the federal treasury for deficit reduction, saving Social Security, and other federal obligations. New York being a populous state, it would have a major responsibility in making up for the missing federal revenues through increased federal tax payments by its citizens. State agencies selfishly looking at the CARA grants they would receive ignored the excessive costs to NY taxpayers. Each $1 the agencies received came from $2 of increased tax payments CARA would force on NY taxpayers!
Dissecting the complicated web of CARA cash flows to show the
true picture needed a medium that could distribute an analysis
as well as back up data. Much more space is needed than can be
provided in a typical TV or radio interview or a newspaper story
or ad. And it couldn't cost much if it was to be of any use to
volunteer grassroots action groups.
The volunteer-built American Land Rights Association (ALRA) website (www.landrights.org) pulled together in one place the complete story about CARA. Both pro and anti CARA viewpoints were covered. The site contains about 500 pages of information:
Home page - this first page has general information about ALRA and about 10 places to click for more information on various property rights subjects such as the League of Private Property Voters index ratings for Congressional votes, Forest Service cabin permittees, current alerts, links to other websites, and most importantly, CARA.
CARA Section - ALRA has emphasized the biggest current issue of concern, CARA, by showing an animated red starburst labeled "land grab crisis" - Act Now, Be Informed! Pressing this will take you to the CARA section of the website which now consists of more than half of the material on the entire ALRA site. Included are:
SUCCESS STORY - ALASKA REPUBLICAN PARTY CONVENTION
Congressman Don Young and Senator Frank Murkowski are powerful Republican committee chairmen with over two decades each of Congressional seniority. Both of these Alaskans had taken past strong positions in favor of private property rights. Congressman Young was well known for statements like "only communist governments should even own land." Even though CARA was condemned as socialism by prominent Republicans from other states, Young and Murkowski apparently felt it was necessary to throw private property rights overboard as part of their concessions to liberal environmentalists as they designed CARA to bring an unprecedented federal cash largesse to Alaska.
Only one organization in the State of Alaska had taken a position against CARA when the state convention of the Alaska Republican Party met on May 19, 2000. Several delegates concerned about CARA and its obvious conflict with Alaska Republican party principles that favored limited government, economic responsibility and reducing the federal land estate wanted the convention to consider a resolution opposing CARA.
Young and Murkowski were among the most prominent Republicans in the state and the passage of a resolution against their CARA by their own party convention was certainly a long shot.
However it passed overwhelmingly and in our opinion, one of the factors that lead to this success was the extensive reference to backup materials on the ALRA website in the information package explaining the reasons to oppose CARA that was mailed to all the delegates before the convention. CARA is anathema to Republican ideals.
Even if many of the delegates did not make extensive use of the website, the existence of the links, we believe, enhanced the credibility of the message against CARA.
These two examples attest to the power of the web to deal successfully with a complex subject. A small and dedicated number of grassroots activists "Can Win Against All Odds" when they have the right message and right vehicle to deliver it. In this case they certainly had little money and resources to put into the effort only the truth of their position.
The ALRA site includes material from those IN FAVOR OF CARA and AGAINST the ALRA position on CARA. Why would you do that? Several reasons. If you are secure in the correctness of your position then you should not fear the arguments of your opponents. It gives you a chance to comment and correct their misrepresentations and it enhances the credibility of your site. It increases the usefulness of your site as a reference source for anyone concerned or working with CARA.
The "home made, amateur" sites we are talking about here will not have the bells and whistles and fancy graphics of the high traffic commercial sites (ex: www.foxnews.com) or the professionally done environmentalist sites (ex: www.sierraclub.org). But if your amateur site has fair, well researched and assembled content it can still be the most credible and useful source of information on the web about your issue.
These amateur sites cannot be expected to attract a mass viewing audience without professional design and marketing help as well as a substantial investment in time and money. But you don't need to have a large number of hits (visitors) to be successful. You only need to have one or two to make it all worthwhile: that legislative or Congressional aide who advises the decision maker how to vote or that reporter who relies on your site for information on your issue. You can personally draw these folks to your site with a phone call, fax or email.
A further observation regarding reporters: They have to spend large amounts of their time chasing down facts and figures, gathering documents, getting people to return their phone calls. They are nearly always extremely time pressured by deadlines and have little time to really think about the subject they are writing about. By assembling the key information on both sides of the issue on your site, the time they save will many times be spent better understanding your point and doing a better article.
The other reason to do a website is for your own side's use. Nothing is more convenient then the instant access availability of information on an Internet website when you have a fast Internet connection(1). Instead of fumbling around through hundreds of pages and clippings for that quote, fact or figure, just use the search engine on your website and there it is!
When that reporter or Congressional aide calls for a phone interview, you can check that fact that eludes you, as you talk. When making a complex point, you can ask them to look at a figure or page on your website as a graphic aid to help explain your position: No time lost sending them something. And also, it is extremely effective to take your caller through a familiarization tour of the resources on your website. Nowadays nearly all reporters and aides will have a fast Internet connection at their desks. If they are responsible for researching your issue they will be grateful for the demo of your site if it is well done. It doesn't need to have the fancy graphics! But the content must be good and credible.
Think of all the time over a hot fax or photocopy machine you have saved!! Think of all the last minute trips to the FedEx office you have avoided.
Accountability: Have people call in to talk shows where the
target politician has to take questions as they come. Record and
then transcribe the answers. Put on the Internet and distribute
transcripts to the media and in hearings and community meetings. This can become a nightmare for a politician trying to duck an issue.
Measures of effectiveness: Install a free counter and you can monitor the number of hits or users clicking on your site. The ALRA site experienced a steadily growing weekly usage over the two years it was building up its rich body of resources. You can also sometimes tell who is using the site. Within 24 hours of the release of a key report on the misinformation CARA supporters were disseminating about Louisiana environmental damage, the Louisiana Department of Natural Resources was making use of the ALRA site.
The site should be current. Don't let it just sit there with the same stale information on it when there is a lot going on with your issue. Those key articles that you work days on getting just right for an OpEd column need to be posted so that they may be retrieved and used many times over. If your issue is national, read the papers on the Internet every day and extract the most important information and post them on the site, monthly, weekly, or daily (depending on how fast your issue is moving along).
In the next section, Lee Ann Gerhart will now tell you about the basics of putting your message on the Internet. She will tell you how to get something up and published to the world in ten minutes or less at no cost!
(1) A fast Internet connection (more than 250k baud) would be one such as a cable modem or DSL (Direct Subscriber Line) that is always on and available for use. They are ten times or more faster than a dial-up phone connection which ranges from 28k to 56k baud in speed.