Some odd things have been happening at the intersection of voting, guns, climate change and cigarettes. Last week, retail giant Amazon.com joined a growing list of major companies that have severed their ties to the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a lobbying group that has worked effectively on voting rights, gun use, and climate change issues. Also this month, the Heartland Institute, a lobbying organization with a long history of thwarting anti-smoking legislation, has seen its membership drop over its activities related to climate change.
If you have been trying to make sense of how these two powerful organizations have suddenly found themselves on the rocks, well, so have we. There are a number of ways to look at the situation, and one way is through the lens of media and messaging.
ALEC and the Trayvon Martin shooting
ALEC has lobbied to obstruct state and federal environmental legislation, but this is not the issue that sparked the organization’s current problems. The beginnings can be traced to last year, when ALEC was targeted for action by the civil rights organization Color of Change. The issue of concern was ALEC’s promotion of state legislation that has the effect of suppressing the vote among minority populations as well as seniors, students, and persons with disabilities.
Color of Change had already begun contacting ALEC corporate supporters that market extensively to minority populations (Pepsico is one example), when the Trayvon Martin incident erupted. The killing exposed another issue of concern: ALEC’s promotion of model “Stand your Ground” legislation, which expands the situations under which a shooter can claim self-defense.
ALEC’s lobbying activities had failed to gain any appreciable attention from major media outlets, but all that changed when photos of Trayvon Martin and his killer flashed across millions of television and computer screens.
Those compelling, human images dominated the media narrative, and the impact on Color of Change’s efforts was striking. Before the shooting, only Pepsico had withdrawn its affiliation. After the shooting, the loss of corporate support for ALEC went from a trickle to a flood.
In an apparent attempt to stem the tide, ALEC terminated its voting and gun legislation agendas shortly after the incident. Nevertheless, including Pepsico, a total of 18 companies and organizations have so far dropped their membership in ALEC - the latest being Amazon.
Many of these companies, including Pepsico as well as Kraft, Intuit, and Coca-Cola, are also involved in sustainability initiatives that are directly affected by ALEC’s anti-environmental lobbying, which may have provided additional motivation for shedding the relationship.
Heartland and climate change
At first glance, Heartland’s case seems similarly touched off by the image of a human face. However, it’s a little more complicated than that.
Heartland cemented its leadership position in the lobbying world a generation ago, with a campaign aimed at stymieing anti-smoking legislation. As with ALEC, Heartland successfully kept its name off the media radar. In recent years Heartland has adapted its tobacco strategies to obstruct environmental legislation, also with little or no notice by major media outlets.
What finally brought Heartland under the public spotlight was a billboard it posted on a Chicago highway a few weeks ago, featuring the face of convicted serial killer Ted Kaczynski. Backed up by material on Heartland’s website, the billboard essentially identified anyone who accepts the settled science on global warming with a homicidal madman.
It’s no surprise that the billboard sparked a storm of outrage from supporters of climate science, but once you see the billboard it’s also easy to understand why even some ardent climate “skeptics” were among the loudest voices of disapproval.
Click over to a New York Times blog post that features a photo of the billboard and it’s pretty obvious: Heartland’s website, heartland.org, is highlighted in big, bold letters.
Whether it was sheer incompetence or an ill-considered moment of organizational hubris, Heartland committed a fundamental error by integrating its name into the global warming message. In doing so Heartland potentially exposed its affiliates to questions over its chronic distortion of climate change issues, and – double whammy – over the very touchy subject of tobacco use.
As a result, though Heartland’s media episode was far less dramatic than ALEC’s, the impact on its long term viability may be far more damaging.
Despite its recent setbacks, ALEC is still busy at work on strategies to slow the progress of clean energy and obstruct climate legislation, while Heartland is reeling. As reported by thinkprogress.org, Heartland has lost a full 35 percent of its 2012 revenues since the billboard incident, its entire insurance industry division has closed up shop, and it has been forced to curtail its climate-related activities.
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