Although newsroom cutbacks have eliminated many dedicated consumer beats, consumer advocacy media might be stronger than ever, thanks to the rise of online reviews and ratings from journalists and the general population.
‘The consumer revolution is being reborn on the Web, and we view that as a wonderful addition to consumer reporting,’ says Kevin McKean, VP and editorial director at Consumer Reports. ‘We’ve reached out to prominent consumer bloggers and invited them to our offices in New York and view them as collaborators, rather than competitors.’
Long the standard for consumer advocacy journalism, McKean says Consumer Reports has been tweaking its editorial mix. ‘Reviews and ratings are certainly the meat and potatoes, but over the past few years, it’s become even more important for Consumer Reports to serve in a watchdog role,’ he says. ‘So we have greatly ramped up our reporting on issues like health, finance, and other places where we think people need help.’
Douglas Heller, executive director of ConsumerWatchdog.org, suggests that the business press is beginning to pick up some of the slack created by shrinking newsrooms.
‘The American consumer is what drives our economy, and the business beat reporter has begun to recognize there is a consumer perspective that is part of his beat and his responsibility,’ he says.
Consumer stories can have a very compelling narrative, especially if accompanied by great visuals. Because of that, Heller notes that many local TV stations remain committed to consumer advocacy. ‘Consumer stories that tug hearts strings are still a staple during sweeps periods,’ he says.
Mark Reback, public advocate at ConsumerWatchdog.org says that PR pros often target local and syndicated columnists with consumer advocacy pitches, especially if the angles are humanized.
‘With… healthcare, it helps to have a patient whose coverage has been revoked, for example,’ he says.
Consumer advocacy stories that get a lot of media play are controversial, adds Joan Claybrook, president of nonprofit group Public Citizen.
‘You have to be agile and remember that the media loves a controversy,’ she says. ‘If you can turn it into a battle of David versus Goliath… that can be very helpful.’
PR pros, especially those representing major brands, might take a defensive stance when it comes to consumer advocacy reporters, but McKean says there is a role for them in such stories as well.
‘Look where you client’s interest might coincide with the interests of consumers, such as a significant green program,’ he says. ‘You should also look at stories that may not be specifically about the client but have an interesting consumer protection angle for (its) industry. If they tip us about that, the reporter is usually going to… ask the PR person what (his or her) client is doing.’