Strategic Comms, Pt 39: No Substitute for Grassroots Communication in Politics

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(This is the 39th in a continuing series on strategic communications. Click here for earlier segments)

By Owen Eagan, The Saint Consulting Group

One of the hallmarks of our company’s success is our use of grassroots advocacy on behalf of our clients.  This is our preferred method of communication because it allows us to interact with people directly and develop a dialogue through which issues and solutions can be explored.  In fact, grassroots communication is so effective that it is increasingly being used in international diplomacy efforts.

For instance, the Emerson Election Project has utilized grassroots communication and person-to-person interactions in its public diplomacy or “soft power” efforts.  This group was founded by Tristram Perry, a public diplomacy officer at the U.S. Embassy in Jakarta, and Dr. J. Gregory Payne, an associate professor at Emerson College.

The project’s first program involved inviting prominent Indonesian journalists to participate in the historic election of Barack Obama in 2008.  Journalists from Indonesia, a country with the fourth largest population and the largest Muslim population in the world, had a particular interest in this campaign.  Interest was not only piqued by Obama’s intercultural background (i.e., he had lived and studied in Indonesia) but also the fact that the country was preparing for only its second presidential election since becoming a democracy in 1999.[1]

The program consisted of briefing the Indonesian journalists on presidential politics through a series of seminars at the college and having them interact with various constituencies in swing states.  As with any public diplomacy effort, the goal of these exchanges was to increase a mutual understanding between the participants and the hosts of the program.  The program was a resounding success and resulted in more than 50 articles and 150 minutes of video for Indonesian audiences.  In addition, a documentary on the program was created to further the project’s mission of promoting understanding through education.[2]

Given the fact that almost 75% of the American public does not have a passport, this severely limits their exposure to other cultures.[3]  Therefore, these types of programs can help fill a void that is otherwise filled by mass communication sources.  Even though these programs are used at a more macro level, they are founded on the same principles as the education and outreach efforts we conduct for our clients.  And, though they may be more labor-intensive and expensive, they are yet another example of how there is no substitute for grassroots communication at any level of politics whether local, national or international.

Owen Eagan is a Senior Consultant for Saint Consulting, an international management consulting firm specializing in land use politics.  He is also an adjunct faculty member at Emerson College, the nation’s only four-year institution dedicated exclusively to communication and the performing arts. Email

[1] Mitchell S. McKinney and Mary C. Banwart, Communication in the 2008 U.S. Election: Digital Natives Elect a President (New York: Peter Lang Publishing, Inc., 2011), 313-326.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

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