Bonner & Associates: the long and undemocratic history of astroturfing

With a history that could surprise the most jaded Beltway insider, Jack Bonner, head of the D.C. public relations firm Bonner & Associates, might just be the king of corporate Astroturf in the nation’s capital.

Whether its on the health care debate or the proposed clean energy bill, a notorious public relations tactic known as  astroturfing is heavily influencing the public conversation.

Astroturfing, the manufacturing of a fake grassroots uprising, is a big money service offered by some very powerful Washington public relations companies. One of the more successful of these is Bonner & Associates, which boasts of a long history of manufacturing fake grassroots movements for corporate America. 

A 1993 New York Times article, A New Breed of Hired Hands Cultivates Grass-Roots Anger, profiles Jack Bonner and his company as a “new breed of Washington firms that has turned grass-roots organizing to the advantage of its high-paying clients, generally trade associations and corporations.” As the Times rightly puts it: “the rise of this industry has made it hard to tell the difference between manufactured public opinion and genuine explosions of popular sentiment.”

New "Grassroots" Pro-Coal Group backed by K-Street PR Firm

“The Federation for American Coal, Energy and Security (FACES of Coal).” the latest “grassroots” organization to join the public conversation on behalf of the coal industry, appears to be a project of the K-Street public relations firm, the Adfero Group, one of industry’s most accommodating voices in Washington, D.C.

The FACES website, which includes no contact information, is registered to Adfero.

[Update: since we posted this article, the website registration for has been updated overnight and Adfero’s name has been wiped, however - thanks to research by one of our most loyal readers, Frank Bi, a cross-reference with Adfero’s IP address still shows running on their server.]

FACES describes itself as “an alliance of people from all walks of life who are joining forces to educate lawmakers and the general public about the importance of coal and coal mining.” But Adfero’s client list includes Koch Industries and the US Chamber of Commerce, two leaders in the fight to confuse, distort and deny the science of climate change - and especially to block government action that might affect their bottom line.

Are Climate Deniers Crazy?

Because the end of the world has never happened before, it’s understandable many people have a hard time wrapping their heads around the potential apocalyptic consequences of climate change.

Floods, famines, mass-migrations – it might be a little too Old Testament for many folks to want to think about.

But what about climate deniers? Those people who don’t react with honest skepticism or debate, but vitriol and spleen-venting anger?

Psychologist Linda Buzzell was wondering the same thing. In an interesting post last week on Huffington, she tried to plum the depths of why some people can’t seem to have a civilized conversation about climate science.

She asks: “Why are these folks so desperate and frantic to dispute the current scientific consensus…? And if you disagree, why the need to scream and foam at the mouth?”

As a medical professional, she wonders: “why are the climate change deniers so upset, so shrill, so fearful, loud and angry at those who agree with the international scientific consensus? What’s the psychology behind the screaming? What are the deniers afraid of?”

Coal Industry Launches New Astroturf Group

Here are the FACES of phony public activism

Yet another astroturf group has emerged from the seemingly bottomless pockets of the coal industry: “Federation for American Coal, Energy and Security” - proudly bringing you the “FACES of Coal”.

This new PR campaign arises amid the ashes of the recently disgraced American Coalition for Clean Coal Energy (ACCCE), implicated in a fraudulent letter writing campaign to Congress. It adds to a growing list of such purportedly grassroots organizations, including the Friends of Coal, Citizens for Coal and Families Organized to Represent the Coal Economy - a group that strangely does not allow families to join.

Despite this coal industry preference for the kind of friends that money can buy, this latest group bills itself as “an alliance of people from all walks of life who have joined forces to educate the general public and lawmakers about the importance of coal and coal mining to our local and national economies.”

Strange then that this campaign is not being run out of a bingo hall or a church basement, but off a flashy but anonymous website with no mailing address or phone number.

Lobbyists for Big Oil Organizing Most “Grassroots” ‘Energy Citizens’ Rallies

Grist took a deeper look at a list of “local organizers” of the Astroturf ‘Energy Citizens’ rallies and discovered that most of them are actually oil industry lobbyists.  Go figure.  Since the American Petroleum Institute cooked up the idea for these ‘grassroots’ events to mimic the health care town hall rent-a-mobs, it makes sense that Big Oil’s lobbyists would do the ‘community organizing’ necessary to pull off this charade.

Grist found that registered oil industry lobbyists are behind 15 of the 21 planned rallies, which look more like ‘glorified company picnics’ than spontaneous grassroots gatherings of concerned citizens. 


Subscribe to DeSmogBlog