Lesson from Entergy’s paid actor flap: Honesty is the best policy

“Grassroots for Hire: Public Affairs Consultants in American Democracy” (Cambridge University, 2014)

Last Friday, a New Orleans judge ordered the City Council to conduct a new vote on whether to allow Entergy to build a natural gas-fired power plant in eastern New Orleans.

Civil District Court Judge Piper Griffin agreed with opponents who insisted the council’s vote in March 2018 was tainted by dozens of paid actors who filled seats in council chambers.

Eventually it was revealed that Entergy paid two public affairs consultants to artificially create the crowd; and that its CEO was aware of the scheme.

Entergy is one of only two Fortune 500 companies in Louisiana and the only one in New Orleans.

According to Edward Walker in his 2014 book Grassroots for Hire, forty percent of Fortune 500 corporations in the US use public affairs consultants to help locate and target would-be activists and offer them non-monetary incentives for participation.

But the consultants shall not manufacture support out of thin air, as Entergy did. Many of those who attended public meetings and testified in support of the new plant did not live in New Orleans.

The clear goal was to disallow interested residents the opportunity to attend and speak out. Such strategies are called “astroturf” and the results can backfire.

Walmart knows this. In 2006, a popular blog called Wal-Marting Across America, written by “Jim and Laura”, detailed the couple’s travels in an RV and their encounters with Walmart workers who always said good things about their employer. But it was soon disclosed that Walmart was paying for the RV rental, gas and fees for writing the blog. The stunt is now a case study.

The US Army Corps of Engineers erred when it was discovered in 2009 that it was paying a public affairs consultant $4.7 million to improve its image. At a time when a million people were struggling to rebuild their homes and their lives in New Orleans after the corps’ levee failures, this news was not well received.

Now Entergy must deal with the fallout from the paid actor scandal.

It will be hard to separate the scandal from the issue of whether the new natural gas plant is the best solution to providing power to the New Orleans region.

As the Entergy flap has demonstrated, money cannot buy influence.

Nothing can replace the power of communities brought together by neighborhood, faith or shared interest.

The key for corporations working to address community opposition is transparency. Simply put, the source of funding must be revealed.

Bottom line, these revelations are good for society, because corporations and federal entities, once their bad behavior is unveiled, will pledge to do better.

A version of this post appeared in the New Orleans Advocate on June 19, 2019.

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