According to several on-line reports, including this one, at least one of the major insurance organizations (in this case UnitedHealth Group) is urging its employees to campaign against any public health insurance option. The program allegedly includes talking points,access to “advocacy specialists”, instructions on attending local tea party meetings and a script for personal letters to Congress. This tactic – called AstroTurf campaigns – is not new, of course, but the jarring issue here is that UnitedHealth has kept a public stance which is  much more conciliatory towards reform proposals.

This issue raises two questions for communication professionals. The first is whether this type of artificial grass-roots campaign actually works – either with members of Congress (who are doubtless used to getting thousands of form letters) or with the general public. The jury may be out on this question, though I would suggest if the central arguments (or criticisms) inherent in the campaign are weak, then no amount of noise will give them traction over the long-term. Then again, maybe I’m an eternal optimist with a belief that most people are basically moderate and logical. Beyond that, if the authenticity of the employee comments or letters is eroded, I would think they carry less weight with most politicians or pundits.

But the bigger question is whether its appropriate for companies to ask – or tell – their employees to participate in de-facto lobbying on behalf of the organization. I think its legitimate, and even smart, to share the company’s position on key public policy issues with employees, and probably even to allow them access to relevant information or materials. Where I believe they cross the line, however, is to ask them to actively get involved in the process…either by attending meetings, signing petitions or writing forms letters.  The problem: what happens if an employee disagrees with the policy? Presumably some employees of UnitedHealth or other insurance companies are sympathetic to the idea of health insurance reform, and may even disagree with the corporate line about a public option. Can they safely refuse the directives of their leaders and managers? I think the UnitedHealth directive crosses the line between education and coercion, much like when employees are gently encouraged to vote for certain officials that support corporate policies or legislation. In my book, advocacy must be organic and authentic to be credible.  I’d be interested in other thoughts.