Interview: Joel Johnson

Editor, The Consumerist

Editor, The Consumerist

Joel Johnson, former editor of Gawker Media tech site Gizmodo, has returned to the empire to helm The Consumerist (www.consumerist.com), a website that debuted yesterday with the mission to document customers' interaction with corporations. PR professionals who may have previously wondered how they could ever track blogger complaints about their companies may find a good start in one site. Companies such as TextDrive, Lenova, Buy.com, Microsoft, Citibank and Sony have already made a negative debut on The Consumerist, which will also point out product sales, rebates, and other positive consumer-focused news.

Johnson talked to PRWeek.com about the website's focus, his interaction with companies as a product reviewer, and how PR professionals can interact with the site.

Q: How long has The Consumerist been in stealth mode?
A:
I've been writing test posts for a month in order to get a feel for the editorial [focus]. The site only went up live Tuesday and launched officially on Wednesday.

Q: Do you have a definitive editorial mission or is something that you will develop as you go along?
A:
Do we know where we're going? No. We have no idea [laughs]. There is the core hope that little screw-ups ? or even big screw-ups ? companies [make] will be rectified by airing those things publicly. That's the core of everything. That said, I don't think we have illusions about our power at this point. More than anything, I see us as a good way to highlight the inherent power that already exists for customers on the web. Anyone can make a blog post and say, "I've had this awful experience [with this company]." And everyone should. The Consumerist can then pick out the ones that we think are particularly valid or applicable to a lot of people and investigate it, which is something that a lot of people don't have time to do.

Q: But, do you see the blog as a way to take down corporations?
A:
Well, it depends on what those corporations do. I'm not a Marxist; I'm pretty into capitalism. But, I have written about consumer electronics and products for years. One of my core frustrations is how bad most stuff is. It seems like there's been a missing element. Companies make bad things or sell bad services, and people have grown to accept that. That's taking away what little power the customer has had. Will I be gunning for specific companies? Well, there is certainly no one on my radar, yet. But, if some [company] is being especially egregious, why not?

Q: But it seems like you're more focused on rectifying consumer's complaints than look for reasons for you to attack a company.
A:
I'm not going to bind the site's focus just yet, but that's not what really interests me. There are plenty of watchdog groups out there doing a good job of that. But there's an inherent issue in that most people ?  myself included ? don't really pay that much attention to that stuff to their detriment. It kinds of get lost in the noise. But I do pay attention to someone having a bad product experience because I may want to buy that product. If someone is having a bad time with this [product], I want to know about it.

Q: Would you consider The Consumerist to be a form of Consumer Reports for the online generation?
A:
The whole Gawker marketing model is to take something that is sort of like [the Gawker title] and say, "We're like this, but different." If we had to pick one, I would say Consumer Reports is the closest analogy.

Q: How do you envisage your interaction with PR professionals? Do you expect anyone to let you know ahead of time that some news might be coming your way and that the company is addressing that particular issue?
A:
I've dealt with PR folks as part of my job for a long time. Their ability to handle their products varies widely. One of the things that appealed to me about this from the beginning is that we don't really need any of the companies to participate. There's obviously the issue of advertisers. But since we publish on the web, our overhead is so low that we don't really need to worry about that so much. We don't have to be beholden to many companies. So, we don't have to treat anyone nicely. The best thing story-wise is to find something sensational and tear people apart. Companies do screw up and screw up badly, but the hardest part is that you don't want to cry wolf all the time. That is something that will be interesting as we go further down the line. There's also [the decision on] how best to give both sides of the story. At the end of the day, it is the Consumerist, so we're probably always err on the side of the customer's [point of view].

Q: But for the sake of edifying consumers, you would hope that the companies contact you to explain what is happening in a clear and truthful manner?
A:
If the company has something they want to add to a story, they shouldn't contact me, except to get a login to comment on the story. My role at The Consumerist is to present the issues and maybe add my own opinion if I think it's worthwhile or funny. The companies should be responding to the customers in plain sight.

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