On Grassroots and Astroturfing

As a relatively small disability service provider, run by and for people with disabilities, QSSS has often struggled to cut through to our target demographic using traditional advertising and marketing. The major publications and other media we would like to advertise in are unfortunately owned by our direct competition, who obviously aren’t terribly keen on assisting us take some of their business.

As a result QSSS has relied on alternate strategies (with limited success), marketing mainly on word-of-mouth. One strategy to help encourage word of mouth promotion was offering, under certain circumstances, a referral bonus. This was in place long before the NDIS rollout, and frankly was mostly a bullet point on some of our promotional material as it hasn’t been used very often; perhaps 4 or 5 times in the eight or nine years it’s been in place. 

Before going any further, we’d like to set the record straight on a few points:

1. The referral fee was something we had in place well before the NDIS, and has only been used a handful of times in the 8 or 9 years we’ve had it. We’ve had many referrals but are selective about when we apply it (hence the “eligibility criteria applies” on the flyer) and many don’t want a referral fee. Nonetheless we make the offer as a gesture of gratitude to the person making the referral, which might be based on first-hand experience of our service or because they have heard about us.
2. It’s a referral fee, not a signup bonus. The person joining the service doesn’t get the bonus, so it is not a direct inducement to join the service.
3. This referral fee has never been involved with an existing NDIS customer or to a potential NDIS customer. Likewise the referral fee has never been involved with other service providers.
4. We don’t believe the policy, as we practice it, violates the NDIS guidelines. We’ve been in contact with the NDIA, and if they give us a ruling otherwise, we will amend or discontinue the policy as needed. Regardless, we will be raising this issue ourselves at our next audit.
5. The referral fee, on the few times it has been paid, was paid out of the owner/managing director’s own pocket. It doesn’t come out of anyone else’s pocket (or package). Ever.
6. Yes, QSSS is a private company, not a registered charity. One of the many reasons is so QSSS can donate to worthy causes (such as disability not for profits) as it sees fit. If the only measure of an organisation’s “goodness” is their tax status, rather than their service delivery model, you’re not doing proper diligence. Charities historically haven’t always done the right thing, especially for people with disabilities
7. QSSS’s service rates, which you can see here, have always been below the NDIS price guide. However, people are of course still free to believe QSSS is “simply in it for the money” if they wish.

Meanwhile a few months ago, a flyer about the referral fee program was updated on our Facebook page, and we didn’t give it much further thought – until someone came across it last week and had concerns that we clearly didn’t consider (NDIS Grassroots Discussion thread, you’ll need a member login). 

Sadly, rather than contacting us directly for clarification or to give constructive feedback, the response was more akin to this (namely, wild accusations based on flimsy evidence): J'Accuse!

A Mea Culpa

As already mentioned, QSSS Is not a big organisation with a big budget for professional print and digital media layout and publication. The existing promotional material we have is put together by a staff member when they are not doing general admin and plan management. I’m honestly not throwing my co-worker under the bus, as she’s only doing this part of her job because I stepped back from it a year or so ago. So this is my fault as much as anyone’s.

That said, with the benefit of hindsight the referral fee flyer should have been more clearly worded to avoid confusion and being misconstrued as somehow “tacky.” The context, and the terms & conditions of the referral bonus should have been clearly explained on the flyer other than simply “eligibility criteria applies.” Perhaps with hindsight the content should have been more nuanced with less exclamation marks. Our sloppy messaging left us exposed to potential misunderstandings like the one we’re paying the price for now.

So yes, we absolutely see how this flyer could lead people to jump to the wrong conclusions about our business practices. For that we genuinely apologise and will update the flyer accordingly.

The Social Media Outrage Machine

However, that horse has long bolted and there’s now chum in the water. Forget the flyer, by now, keyboard warriors are absolutely raging about this and a multiplicity of further perceived sins. Lynch MobDiscussion has long since moved on from the merits of referral fees and the flyer; being a private company QSSS was “just in it for the money”, doesn’t respect/understand people with disabilities, and it’s suggested we’re engaging in widespread fraud. There’s talk of coordinated boycott campaigns and calls to report us to well, everyone.

Our Facebook page receives messages telling us we’re “disgusting” and “disrespect people with disabilities”, and that we “now answer to them” (the NDIS Grassroots Discussion group).

This is all repeatedly and gleefully egged on by the original poster. For good measure, when one forum participant expresses concern over the tone of the discussion, the original poster accuses them of working for QSSS (they don’t).

I’ve been a member of NDIS Grassroots Discussion for several years. At its best it’s a wonderful resource for NDIS participants to shares tips, stories and advice. At its worst, like sadly much of the internet, it’s a feral bag of cats. At 45,000 plus members, NDIS Grassroots Discussion has grown into a movement with potentially a lot of power, and the potential to make or break a small service provider (some even deservedly so). With that power comes responsibility, namely to be transparent about any conflicts of interest, that we believe isn’t being properly exercised by the admins of this group.

When you search for NDIS Grassroots Discussion, it is interesting that “Negative experiences with the group NDIS Grassroots Discussion page” is the second ranked item on Facebook. Reading through that page it was cold comfort to learn that QSSS is not the first, nor will be the last, group to be “Grassrooted.”

Never Read The Comments

“I saw a sound, well-reasoned argument in an internet comment, and it made me reconsider my position.” — Nobody, ever.

Some of the criticism (regarding the flyer) we may have deserved, and with most of the rest we accept we can’t do anything about it. If you don’t have a disability, or don’t live in or have no intention of visiting Queensland, we suggest you lose as much sleep about us as we will about you. If you do live in Queensland, why not try us out? With already lowered expectations, perhaps you’ll be pleasantly surprised.

What did gall us however, were the accusations that we either exploit and/or don’t respect people with disabilities. It’s some perverse form of ableism to either assume we are all non-disabled – or that we behave like some non-disabled service providers, as profiteers or some sort of disability Uncle Tom. As a group with over 100-plus years of lived experience in a wheelchair (and most administration staff with some form of disability), some offence was taken.

We realise there’s next to no chance that anything we say will change the view of anyone in that particular Facebook discussion, which rapidly descended into a dumpster fire.

Usually, we’d ignore such an online farce rather than give it oxygen. However, in this instance we need to inoculate ourselves from any fallout that may affect our existing and future clients and staff.

Have you just been Astroturfed?

“Acting with integrity, honesty and transparency” was posed as a rhetorical question by the original poster of the Facebook thread. She also stated that she doesn’t “have any personal relationship or experience with this agency.” Sadly, this statement is neither completely honest or transparent.

We made contact with the original poster to ask for an opportunity to explain our organisation’s position, this offer was aggressively rejected. The original poster has, in the past, had regular communication via email and phone on several issues with our managing director, and was likely aware that she manages/owns QSSS. It also appears the original poster has been in contact with at least one former client of QSSS. Later in the thread the original poster hints she “knows more” about QSSS, which also contradicts her original claim of impartiality.

We believe such information should have been disclosed at the outset, so forum participants were aware the issue of our referral fee wasn’t being raised by an impartial observer, but by someone with a vested interest in harming our business.

Astroturfing is the practice of misusing a grassroots organisation to add credibility to a message or marketing campaign. It’s usually done by large companies setting up fake groups, but legitimate grassroots organisations can also be misled to achieve the same end. By intentionally hiding her vested interests, we contend the original poster came perilously close to turning NDIS Grassroots Discussion into Astroturf. It would be a shame for NDIS Grassroots Discussion, a group with such potential, to lose its way like this.

I’m not for a second suggesting QSSS is perfect, but we will always stand up to dishonest bullies.

*N.B. This article is solely the opinion of Tony Leggett and does not necessarily reflect the views of QSSS (although they agree with the gist, perhaps with less salty language).

External Links:

NDIS Grassroots discussion thread about QSSS referral flyer:

https://www.facebook.com/groups/239631286154106/permalink/2256390527811495/

Negative Experiences with the group NDIS Grassroots Discussion page

https://www.facebook.com/Negative-experiences-with-the-group-NDIS-Grassroots-Discussion-page-263380354108794/