CEO Q&A: Jim Guest, Consumers Union

Consumers Union's Jim Guest talks to Chris Daniels about the importance of PR for the consumer advocacy group, particularly around its push for healthcare reform.

PRWeek: What are your PR goals?

Guest: Our goal is to connect with people. One of the key strategies we've had and we're doing much more of in the last few years is really engaging with consumers both ways, and the PR department has been crucial for that. So we're both trying to get useful information in the consumer's hands so they can use it, but also gather information from consumers, because that's a value to us.

 

PRWeek: You have 600,000 online activists. How you do you define them?

Guest: These are people who on issues they are passionate about will send e-mails to members of Congress, executives, corporations, state legislatures and so forth. We didn't have this group seven or eight years ago, and now we have about 200,000 who are actively involved in the heathcare reform campaign. Of those, we have about 40,000 who we call super activists—they attend town halls, request meetings with a legislator, and write letters to the editor. They are a new set of influencers.

PRWeek: How have you engaged these influencers?

Guest: Opportunities for communicating with consumers have obviously expanded with more channels, and we're making full use of them—on blogs, Twitter, Facebook.

But we also do things like send an RV with a videographer to 46 states around the country, which we did in the summer of 2008. We collected stories from people about their experiences with the health care system. What we've done is put all these stories on our Web site, so people can see the human dimension. By doing this, on not just health care reform but also credit card reform and other issues, members of Congress will ask us to put them in touch with people who can talk about an issue from a very personal perspective. So we've flown people in to meet senators and members of Congress, testify at hearings, be part of press conferences, when somebody's announcing or pushing a piece of legislation that we support.

PRWeek: How do you measure your PR?

Guest: There are subscription services that tell us how many times we get mentioned in key media, but we evaluate it in other ways. In terms of healthcare reform, we're getting invited by high-level people to testify and provide recommendations. And I think a part of that is because we are much more visible. We know we have 20 million or so readers each month with Consumer Reports (and eight million subscribers), so we're seen as an important influence.

PRWeek: Consumers Union bought Consumerist.com from Gawker Media almost a year ago. How have you used the site?

Guest: The audience we reach tends to be an older demographic, and we realize there's a whole other generation of consumers between 25 and 40, who are different from most Consumer Reports subscribers.

Since we started in 1936, we've always gone after exposing unsavory marketplace practices. Consumerist.com does that tremendously well. When we first purchased the site, the first question we got was, ‘Are you going to muzzle it?' It was always such a feisty organization and…now it's bigger than ever. Consumers Union and Consumer Reports used to be fairly staid, fairly slow moving, but I'd say we're pretty feisty and fast-acting now, too. So it's been a good influence both ways.

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