PAUL HOLMES: At minimum, front groups must be open about funding to legitimize claims of ethical practice

Sport Utility Vehicle Owners of America (SUVOA) is, according to its website, "a nonprofit consumer organization dedicated to supporting the rights and serving the interests of SUV owners," providing a "voice and advocate for SUV owners," and "dedicated to serving the public with information about SUV ownership."

Sport Utility Vehicle Owners of America (SUVOA) is, according to its website, "a nonprofit consumer organization dedicated to supporting the rights and serving the interests of SUV owners," providing a "voice and advocate for SUV owners," and "dedicated to serving the public with information about SUV ownership."

It's not clear from the website, or from SUVOA's press releases, how many regular SUV owners are members. Last year, the group told PRWeek that it had about 100 members, but hoped to reach 50,000 by the end of the year. What is clear is that SUVOA is a front for SUV manufacturers. Its board of directors consists largely of industry reps and public affairs execs with ties to the industry. So is there anything dishonest or unethical about SUVOA? In a literal, Clintonesque kind of way (it depends what the meaning of "is" is), the answer is probably no. Most of its senior execs probably do own SUVs, assuming that if you work for the Recreational Vehicle Industry Association you're likely to own a recreational vehicle yourself. And the group can legitimately claim to represent the interests of SUV owners, who presumably believe their vehicles should be legal and socially acceptable. On the other hand, it's hard to believe that there isn't an attempt to deceive here. It seems likely that SUVOA gets most of its funding - directly or indirectly - from the auto industry rather than from individual owners and that its true purpose is to represent their interests. (If you don't feel there is a difference, ask yourself which side SUVOA would take in a dispute between manufacturers and owners - over safety concerns, for example.) At the very least, the group's funding is opaque: It's certainly not explained on SUVOA's website or in its press releases. And that's my problem with front groups. As I explained last week, I don't think you can legislate an issue this complicated without raising serious First Amendment concerns, but I do think an ethical group - one with nothing to hide - should be completely open about the sources of its funding and the interests it represents. I'd like to see a general agreement within the PR community that groups like this should always be open about their funding: the percentage that comes from corporate interests and from individuals; the identity and affiliation of anyone who has given more than a certain amount ($1,000 seems reasonable). That information should be available at the group's website and there should be directions to the information on every press release or ad the group puts out. As an industry, we should urge the adoption of this kind of best practice by all ethical practitioners.
  • Paul Holmes has spent the past 17 years writing about the PR business for publications including PRWeek, Inside PR, and Reputation Management. He is currently president of The Holmes Group and editor of www.holmesreport.com.

    For a related letter to the editor, click here.

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