More than a decade ago, Suzuki earned itself a place in the crisis- management textbooks thanks to its response to a negative review by Consumer Reports. After the magazine claimed the Suzuki Samurai was prone to rollovers, the company fought back.
Rather than recalling the product, or making the traditional expressions of concern, Suzuki - with its PR agency Rogers & Associates - insisted that its product was as safe as any in its category, and accused Consumer Reports of scare mongering in an attempt to increase subscriptions and raise funds.
"Consumer Reports is one of the most respected publications in the country, and everyone believes it's so totally objective," said Rogers at the time. "But you don't have to dig very deep to find that the lawyers are the ones who support these organizations, and they have a vested interest, they have an axe to grind."
Suzuki claims the 1988 test was rigged because Consumers Union (CU), the nonprofit publisher of Consumer Reports, modified its standard road test when it developed a rollover test for the four SUVs studied - a fact CU disclosed at the time. Suzuki also has presented anecdotal evidence that CU employees cheered when the Samurai's tires left the ground on sharp turns, and says one employee at the magazine told others at the test, "If you can't find someone to make this car roll over, I will." (Those statements are evidence of the malice required for the automaker to win in court.)
Still, the US District Court for the Central District of California threw the case out on First Amendment grounds, but it was overruled by the Ninth US Circuit Court of Appeals, and last week the US Supreme Court declined to review that decision - just as it refused to review the decision that allowed consumer activist Mark Kasky to sue Nike for false advertising.
I draw the connection between the two cases, because both involve the same principle - the idea that disagreements over controversial topics (the responsibility of a company for what goes on in its contractors' factories, whether a particular car is "not acceptable") should be settled in the court of public opinion, not a court of law.
A number of news organizations filed amicus briefs in support of CU (just as they did in support of Nike). Says Lucy Dalglish, executive director of the Reporters Committee For Freedom of the Press, "Do I think that's going to chill some people? Yes. It's going to make them more cautious about what they report. For the consumer, it means less information to base purchasing decisions on."
Whatever the verdict, the suit opens the door for companies that don't like product reviews to make a federal case out of their dissatisfaction.Paul Holmes has spent the past 16 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.