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Looking under the Astroturf

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AT&T has been absorbing body blows over the last three weeks for its use of pressure tactics to get employees to register their opposition to the government's proposed “network neutrality” rules without revealing that they are AT&T employees. An internal memo from a senior AT&T lobbyist presented five “talking points” and suggested that employees should post them to a government Web site using their personal e-mail accounts. The memo also pointedly referred to jobs that could be lost if the Federal Communications Commission's proposed plans—which would limit the pricing flexibility of network service providers like AT&T—went through. It didn't take long for the entire text of the memo to leak. Popular Web sites ranging from the Consumerist to Huffington Post to CNET published excerpts and scored AT&T for deception. The company was branded a poster child for the practice of “astroturfing,” or conducting seemingly grassroots publicity campaigns that are actually funded by commercial interests. AT&T didn't back down. A spokesman said employees were free to use their business e-mail addresses instead of personal ones, but the lobbyist's memo made no mention of that option. The company's refusal to own up to its game only made it look sneakier. The episode dramatizes the risk of deception in an age of growing openness. Trickery and manipulation are risky tactics when a single whistle-blower can so quickly unmask the deed. A swarm of critics is standing by to make sure everyone knows about an offender's misconduct. It wasn't so long ago that a company could reasonably expect internal memos to remain internal and that even disgruntled employees could do little damage. But today an executive indiscretion can turn into an embarrassing publicity mistake. Corporate communication barriers are too porous and employees too eager to share evidence of wrongdoing to make deception viable. The vast majority of employees may toe the corporate line, but all it takes is one malcontent to leak the offending document to a critical outsider. Every management memo is, in effect, a public document. Today's freewheeling online culture celebrates the concept of “transparency,” which is a word that makes some executives shudder. But transparency doesn't mean total openness. Constituents respect the need for businesses to maintain confidentiality, but they now demand complete honesty about tactics and motivations. In the old days, tactics such as AT&T's were viable as long as investigative journalists didn't find out. Today, every whistle-blower has a global audience, and anyone can be an investigative journalist. Businesses that practice transparency are rewarded for being part of a conversation, even if their critics don't agree. On the other hand, practices like astroturfing are not only dangerous, they're becoming suicidal. M
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