Consumer champion: Sheila McKechnie

The Consumers’ Association was in distinct need of an image boost to rid itself of its soft reputation of the 1970s and Sheila McKechnie is the woman charged with refocusing the group as a campaigning voice. Sophie Barker reports Since her arrival at the helm of the Consumers’ Association (CA) more than four years ago, Sheila McKechnie has shaken the organisation from top to toe. And the communications department has not been spared.

Since her arrival at the helm of the Consumers’ Association (CA)

more than four years ago, Sheila McKechnie has shaken the organisation

from top to toe. And the communications department has not been

spared.

This is a woman with a mission: to build CA’s image as a crusader for

the modern consumer.

Last year saw all but one of the Consumers’ Association’s six-strong

media relations staff being made redundant as part of McKechnie’s

fundamental restructure. She has since appointed a new communications

director and seven new PR staff. At the same time, she split the media

relations function down the middle. This created a product PR team,

whose job it is to promote the Which? brand, including the flagship

magazine, and a campaign media relations team charged with promoting

ongoing initiatives like the association’s drive for consistent food

labelling, fairer car prices and more effective regulation of private

healthcare.

Commenting on the state of the association’s PR back in 1995, this

feisty Scot does not mince her words. ’I wasn’t at all happy with

communications. There was a bunkered mentality, an unwillingness to

engage. My view is very much that if you want to influence people, you

have to talk to them, either through the media or directly.’

Which?’s grannyish reputation as a magazine stocked with product tests

is another flaw she noted in CA’s PR. ’The image many people have of

Which?

is trapped in the 1970s,’ she says. ’I get a bit cross about the number

of people who say they used to subscribe, but don’t need any more stuff

on kettles and toasters. I ask them if they have seen it lately and

whether they can honestly say they don’t need good independent financial

advice, or help with choosing the best gas or telephone supplier.’

These are the misconceptions the Consumers’ Association’s campaign and

product PR teams have been tasked with correcting. McKechnie claims they

are already well on their way. ’There’s been an enormous shift in the

culture of the organisation,’ she says. ’The underpinning is that we

need to be much more accessible to members, to industry and to the

Government.’

A shining example of this new culture came last month when Trade and

Industry Secretary Stephen Byers announced a wide-ranging study into

international price comparisons. The moment he finished his speech,

briefing notes and a press pack were rolling off the association’s

printers and McKechnie’s PR team had lined up a battery of seven

successive TV and radio interviews in which she responded to Byers’

statement. ’He’s set out his stall and my job is to make sure he

delivers,’ she explains. ’We have good relations with the Government,

but we’re not the easiest of bedfellows. My Byers has been warned.’

McKechnie compares the way the CA tackled - or in her view, failed to

tackle - the BSE crisis when it broke in 1996 with the association’s

current input into the frenzied debate over genetically-modified foods.

Most news items on G-M food in the past few weeks have contained a

reference to the association, either due to research it has produced, or

quoting a CA spokesperson drumming home the importance of meaningful

food labelling.

’What’s changed since the BSE crisis is that we’ve developed a

communications strategy,’ says McKechnie.

’We deal with the media more effectively. The Consumers’ Association has

been a sensible voice in the debate over G-M foods. The other parties in

the debate take us seriously because we back up what we say with

well-researched documents. The public probably see me bobbing up and

down on TV, but the research is not seen, and that is what builds the

CA’s reputation for being a thoughtful voice.

’We went out and did research on consumer opinions and set out what the

Government should do in the short, the medium and the long-term. We’re

no Jenny-Come-Lately in this debate,’ she adds.

This statement highlights the dilemma faced by the association in its

PR. Not only is it a not-for-profit organisation with limited resources,

which means it cannot be seen to be spending too much on self-promotion,

but it is by nature a behind-the-scenes operator whose role rarely comes

into the limelight. McKechnie herself is no novice to

profile-raising.

Before joining the association, she spent almost ten years putting

homelessness on the national agenda as the director of Shelter. But she

prefers to leave PR to the professionals - and it is no surprise that

since she joined, the association has appointed its first PR agency,

Firefly Communications.

Nonetheless, McKechnie is also fiercely sure of how she wants the

association to communicate with Government, the media, the wider public

and its members - the all-important Which? devotee without whose

subscription fee the organisation would have no resources. This,

combined with a barely containable enthusiasm for consumer rights, means

that McKechnie has a more hands-on role in the Consumers’ Association’s

PR than her disclaimer lets on.

McKechnie admits that promoting the association is hard work. Consumer

rights is not as sexy an issue as homelessness, although, if last

month’s unveiling of a giant billboard asking ’Isn’t it time labelling

was modified too?’ outside the Agriculture Ministry is anything to go

by, McKechnie and her PR team are doing all they can to make it so.

’It’s quite difficult to be attacked when you’re doing things that

people regard as morally sound,’ she says. ’You don’t get the personal

vilification, whereas I’ve had comments from manufacturers, producers

and suppliers of services that I would regard as fairly vicious and

personal. If you’re a public figure, you can’t afford to be too

thin-skinned.’

At this, she looks across the table. ’I don’t like to be bullied,’ she

says, smiling. ’So if you want to dish it out, I hope you’re ready to

take it.’

G-M LABELLING: CAMPAIGNING FOR THE TRUTH

The Consumers’ Association has been campaigning for better consumer

choice in genetically-modified (G-M) food for the past 18 months. Its

most recent PR initiative, the ’Isn’t it time labelling was modified

too?’, campaign, launched last month, calls for consistent, accurate and

meaningful labelling of food products nationwide. The campaign’s launch

was covered in all national newspapers and across the five terrestrial

TV channels.

The CA targeted the Sunday Times, the Daily Mail and the Express on the

labelling issue. Not only are these papers running anti-G-M food

campaigns on their pages, but they are also read by more household food

shoppers than other papers.

As well as media relations work, the association has lobbied Government

hard for an improved labelling policy to be introduced. Consumers’

Association senior public affairs adviser and food expert Julie Sheppard

has met relevant officials and ministers at the Ministry of Agriculture,

Fisheries and Food.

The campaign is backed by research conducted between December and March

showing that, of 32 unlabelled products containing soya and maize, only

eight came from a guaranteed non-G-M source.

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