The appointment of its first ever director of communications is one sign
of the Consumers’ Association’s determination to re-establish itself as
a force to be reckoned with
Sheila McKechnie has a reputation as a formidable campaigner, earned
during ten years at housing charity Shelter where she fought tooth and
nail to put the plight of the homeless on the social and political
agenda. When, at the start of the year, she left Shelter to become
director of the Consumers’ Association, no one doubted she would
redefine its role.
The first indications of the direction in which she is to take the
organisation have now come to light. Last week saw the appointment of
Steve Harris as the CA’s first ever director of communications (PR Week,
Harris, who joins the body in early December from his current post as
chief executive of the Eyecare Information Service, will take charge of
a 30-strong communications division to be formed by bringing together
four previously separate units - press, campaigns, corporate relations
and legal issues. It is clear that from now on the CA is to adopt a more
aggressive campaigning stance.
‘The Consumers’ Association had reached a point in its life where it
needed to change,’ says Harris.
‘We have to dedicate resources to tackling an issue, to tackle it at
government level, through the media, maybe trying to achieve legislative
change. It’s really adding this extra dimension, so we’re providing
information, but also trying to achieve real change.’
Soon after Harris arrives he will sit down with McKechnie and other
senior staff to draw up a strategic plan. It will identify specific
issues and areas on which to focus. These will almost certainly include
financial services and legal advice - seen as bugbears by both McKechnie
and Harris. More ambitiously, it is likely to extend to the NHS,
competition policy and, perhaps, education.
‘It’s not that the CA has never campaigned, it’s just that it’s never
had discreet campaigning objectives,’ says McKechnie. ‘We’ve got to be
taking part in some of the big debates as well, such as the ageing
population and marginalised consumers. In ten years’ time I’d like the
CA to be as important, respected and consulted on consumer issues as the
CBI is in industry.’
The harsh reality for the CA is that though the surveys in Which? and
its other magazines continue to grab headlines, they seldom have the
clout to effect change. If the CA is ever to have a standing comparable
to the CBI it must inject greater vigour into its campaigning.
The organisation also needs to address a worrying fall in its
membership, which has been in decline since the late 1980s and now
stands at 781,000. At the same time the circulation of its flagship
Which? magazine has dropped from 850,000 in 1988 to 657,000 today.
Though some of the blame may be ascribed to the recession, there are
plainly other reasons for this poor performance. In some quarters there
is the feeling that the CA has gone for the headlines, occasionally at
the expense of accuracy in its publications.
‘I cannot help but feel their subscribers would benefit from a two-way
constructive dialogue with financial services companies better than a
one-way hit that digs people into entrenched positions,’ says Paul
Lockstone, UK head of PR for NatWest.
NatWest has come in for criticism in the Which? annual survey of high
street banks. However, Lockstone thinks the CA has become a little more
constructive and less adversarial under McKechnie, a view shared by
British Bankers’ Association press and information manager Pauline
Hedges who thinks the CA has ‘not been as condemnatory as it has been in
That is not a view held by the Law Society which reacted with fury to a
Which? magazine report earlier this month that claimed solicitors too
often make costly mistakes when advising on everyday consumer problems.
The report said that in response to one of the situations outlined by
the undercover researchers, only one out of 20 solicitors gave the
advice deemed to be best by the CA’s lawyers. Law Society president
Martin Mears called it ‘the saddest example yet of a soundbite survey’.
The legal body alleges inconsistencies in the way the research was
conducted and is angry that only selected solicitors were named in the
‘We’re suspicious of their motives and disappointed by what they’ve
done,’ says Law Society media relations officer David McNeill. ‘It
hasn’t added to the store of knowledge or solutions. It’s a very glib
and incomplete survey, even if you accept what they say - which we
Which? would not be serving its purpose if it didn’t say things
companies and professional bodies would rather were kept out of print.
But the odd furore it generates is not enough.
For Harris and his reconstituted team one of the main tasks is to bring
the Consumers’ Association name out from behind the Which? brand,
explain its role and give it an identity as a campaigning body that is
fighting for consumers’ rights.
As McKechnie says, there is more to the body than just testing ‘kettles
and washing machines, important though that remains’. The appliance of
some campaigning science is what is called for.