ANALYSIS: Consumer watchdog sharpens its teeth

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

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,

20 October).



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

the past’.



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

report.



‘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

don’t.’



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.



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