Patriot Act Roadshow

Marketing, rather than merits, will likely determine the fate of President Bush's signature legislation

One month after the worst terrorist attack on American soil, the Department of Justice garnered enough support to pass the USA Patriot Act. But with the passage of time, civil liberties groups have become increasingly shrill in their opposition to this law that gives the government and law enforcement broad monitoring abilities. Their criticisms have attracted the attention of legislators and the media. In response, the DoJ has started its own marketing campaign to respond to accusations of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and others. The marketing of the act, and not its merits, may determine its fate.

The two major crutches of the government's Patriot Act promotional campaign are a website, Lifeandliberty.gov, and speeches by Attorney General John Ashcroft to law enforcement officials around the country. But if this campaign is designed to sway popular sentiment, it may be falling short.

The problem with the DoJ's strategy stems from its inability to communicate its security platform to the general public, says Charles Lamb, author and professor of marketing at the M.J. Neeley School of Business at Texas Christian University. Giving speeches to law enforcement officials is preaching to the choir. The TV cameras are outside with the privacy advocates, and that's where the message is getting to the masses, says Lamb.

According to Lamb, consumers are more likely to hear a commentary from an ACLU member on public radio than to happen upon Lifeandliberty.gov. Until the DoJ realizes that it needs to spend more time explaining why this law is necessary, privacy advocates will continue to sway hearts and minds.

Eva Neumann, president of ENC Marketing & Communications, which often works with the government, also sees flaws in the DoJ's marketing campaign. When Neumann searched for "Patriot Act" on the Internet, up popped civil liberties sites and productsnothing from the DoJ. Even the title, Lifeandliberty.gov, appears to have little to do with the Patriot Act. The department claims it chose the title because the act is designed to "preserve the lives and liberties of Americans," and the website, which has had approximately 50,000 visitors, reflects that cause.

DoJ spokesman Mark Corallo says security concerns about the Patriot Act have been addressed with town hall meetings across the country. He argues that the only reason Ashcroft is talking to law enforcement is to counter untruths about the Patriot Act. A Fox News/Opinion Dynamics statistic in July found that 91 percent of voters don't think the Patriot Act has affected their civil liberties. Contrast that with a CBS News poll two months earlier where 52 percent of Americans were either "very concerned" or "somewhat concerned" about losing their civil liberties.

Whichever side you choose to believe is a matter of perception. But that's why the battle over the Patriot Act won't be won in the halls of Congress. It will be won on the picket lines, on the websites and on the nightly news.

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