How to Get in Consumer Reports’ Good Graces

Consumer Reports can be one of the most challenging—and rewarding—media organizations for PR professionals to leverage. Challenging because Consumer Reports operates by its own set of rules; rewarding because the magazine and brand is hugely influential.

I had the opportunity in early January to moderate an hourlong discussion with two leaders from Consumer Reports at the annual Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. Paul Reynolds, the pub’s electronics editor, joined with Evon Beckford, head of electronics testing, to share behind-the-scenes insight on how they acquire, evaluate and report on new products.

First, some background: Consumers Union, the non-profit publisher of Consumer Reports, celebrates its 75th anniversary this year. The flagship magazine has nearly 4 million subscribers, while the rapidly growing Consumerreports.org Web site has 3.2 million subscribers. Consumers Union operates the largest independent consumer testing lab in the world, with more than 150 engineers, technicians and others staffers testing more than 3,000 products a year.

The magazine does not accept advertising nor does it accept free products, either to keep or on loan. Unlike other publications where a single reviewer evaluates products and writes about them, the labs develop a testing plan with input from the editors, then test and assign the famous Consumer Reports ratings—from “Excellent,” a red bull’s-eye, down to “Poor,” a black circle—and provide them to the magazine’s editorial staff, which writes the stories.

Consumer Reports ’ ratings and reader survey results are routinely quoted by other media, most dramatically in July 2010, when the magazine said it could not recommend Apple’s iPhone 4 because of reception problems, unleashing a storm of media coverage. Even the usually unflappable Apple was caught off balance by the review. To help you get on sure footing with Consumer Reports, here are some paraphrased answers from Reynolds and Beckford to questions on how to work effectively with Consumer Reports:

Q: How do I know when Consumer Reports is about to review a product from my company or my client?

A: Consumer Reports buys new products at retail as soon as they are available. So the best time to make contact is when your product is first reaching store shelves.

Q: My product development team doesn’t understand why Consumer Reports assigned our new product a rating other than “Excellent.” What can I do?

A: Manufacturers can request a meeting with the lab staff to receive the testing protocols used for the evaluation and the test results for that product. However, the lab staff will not share test results for competitors’ products. You can request an in-person meeting at Consumers Union’s offices in Yonkers, N.Y. Due to production schedules, the ideal time for in-person meetings is in the first half of the year.

Q: Consumer Reports just contacted me to “rent” a product that hasn’t yet been released. What should I do?

A: To get a head start on evaluating products of high interest to Consumer Reports readers, the lab staff will occasionally request a pre-release version of a product from the manufacturer. Because of its strict policy against accepting free product loans, the publication insists on paying an appropriate rental or lease fee for the time they have the product—usually two to three weeks. (My advice: Work with your finance department to prepare an invoice. It’s worth the extra effort.)

Q: We want to invite a Consumer Reports editor to our event, or to our headquarters for a briefing, and we’ll gladly pay travel expenses. Should we make the offer?

A: You can make the offer, but Consumer Reports will always say no. The magazine never accepts anything of value from manufacturers, not even meals. (My advice: Consumer Reports editors regularly attend industry events, so ask for a meeting at the event site. Don’t put gifts on the table or propose meetings at expensive restaurants—keep it simple.)

Q: Consumer Reports just gave our product a rave review. Can I announce this on our Web site and put out a news release?

A: No. Consumers Union has a strict “no commercial use policy” that says in part: “Neither the Ratings nor the reports may be used in advertising or for any other commercial purpose without our permission.” So you can’t reproduce the Consumer Reports logo or quote from the magazine’s reviews.

Landing a positive review in Consumer Reports is one of the biggest media relations challenges, yet the payoff can be rewarding beyond belief. Best of luck with your pitching. PRN

CONTACT:

Mike Langberg is a VP in the Silicon Valley office of Weber Shandwick. He can be reached at mlangberg@webershandwick.com.