Critics call nonprofit tied to Stratacomm 'front group' for carmakers

LOS ANGELES: A nonprofit consumer group with close ties to Washington, DC-based Stratacomm is being accused of acting as a tool of the auto industry after launching a California-based pro-SUV campaign.

LOS ANGELES: A nonprofit consumer group with close ties to Washington, DC-based Stratacomm is being accused of acting as a tool of the auto industry after launching a California-based pro-SUV campaign.

"We have been wrongfully labeled as an auto industry front group," said Ron DeFore, who is both a principal at Stratacomm and director of communications at the group in question, Sport Utility Vehicle Owners of America. "The people on our board truly represent individuals."

The SUV group, a nonprofit that claims 23,000 members, recently launched an effort against proposed clean-air regulations that would limit emissions from vehicles starting in 2009 in California.

The regulations would aim to cut emissions by 25% in light trucks and by around 18% for SUVs and large trucks, in part by cutting engine size.

The California Air Resources Board is slated to vote on the rules on September 23. Because California represents 10% of the US auto market, automakers are closely following the issue.

Sport Utility Vehicle Owners of America is fighting the proposed rules with an ad and PR campaign featuring clowns cramming into small cars, saying the rules would force California drivers to squeeze into smaller, less-safe vehicles.

Critics of the campaign, such as environmental groups Bluewater Network and Natural Resources Defense Council, and many media outlets have focused coverage on Stratacomm's close ties to the SUV group.

Media have pointed out - in addition to DeFore's dual role with the agency and the non-profit - that Stratacomm has many auto industry clients, including Ford, GM, and DaimlerChrysler, which also advertise on the group's site.

Stratacomm created the non-profit status of the SUV group two years ago after buying the name and other assets from its founder, said DeFore.

"There was a tremendous need in the public-policy arena, as well as the media, for some balance to be brought to the coverage on SUVs," he said. Despite the controversy, DeFore said the biggest challenge of the campaign is explaining to reporters the different ways that safety data can be interpreted.

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