Apple, Inc. is the creator of elegant and ingenious products, and its reputation on Wall Street and with technology geeks and consumers could hardly be better. So when word circulated in blogs that Apple’s latest gadget, the iPhone 4, was dropping calls, the company’s first reaction was to dismiss the complaints as some people not knowing how to hold a cell phone properly. But a week or so later, when a 74-year-old publication called Consumer Reports said it wouldn’t recommend the iPhone 4 to its subscribers because of the signal-loss problem, Apple suddenly came around. It called a press conference to announce a software fix, a free case for iPhone users and a refund for anyone unhappy with the phone. CEO Steve Jobs said he was “stunned and embarrassed” by the Consumer Reports judgment.
There’s something delicious about a high-flying technology company running head first into an earnest, old-fashioned research outfit like Consumer Reports. But it’s also worth asking: How did Consumer Reports come to be so respected by the public and the news media? And can leaders borrow some of that magic for use in their communities?
First, about Consumer Reports: It’s the principal publication of a nonprofit organization called Consumers Union. Consumers Union was founded in 1936 on the belief that average people needed protection from shoddy merchandise and that the best way of determining a product’s quality was to test it using scientific methods. To ensure its credibility, Consumer Reports does not accept advertising and will not allow companies to use its ratings in their ads or commercials. Consumer Reports’ reputation, then, rests on promises to its subscribers: It promises to be on the side of consumers (establishing trust), makes it clear that it cannot be bought (giving it legitimacy) and spells out its testing methodology (showing that its judgments are fair and reliable).
Now, let’s think about communities. Is there anything like Consumer Reports in your city—an institution, individual, organization or process that citizens turn to in sorting out public disputes? Actually, in a few places there are. It might be a highly trusted politician or political body; a newspaper or longtime broadcaster; a respected nonprofit, such as a chamber of commerce or civic league; or maybe even a well regarded civic volunteer. But most communities don’t have any of these. In these places, politicians are just politicians, the chamber is seen as a mouthpiece of the business community, there is no civic league, and the newspaper is dying, irrelevant—or both. If there were any highly regarded civic volunteers, they’ve retired or moved away.
So what can community leaders do to build support for tough decisions in places where no one is trusted? You can follow the Consumer Reports’ formula in creating processes based on the its promises of trust, legitimacy, fairness and reliability. One way is to convene a “blue ribbon committee.” You know how this works: A mayor or county commission asks a group of prominent citizens to listen to all sides, consult with experts and arrive at a set of findings and recommendations.
The federal government is particularly fond of blue ribbon committees (or commissions, as they’re sometimes called).Â Think of the 9/11 Commission, which looked into the causes of the Sept. 11, 2001 attack, and the Warren Commission on the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. More recently, President Obama created a National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform to recommend ways of reducing the federal deficit.
You see blue ribbon committees at the local level, too. A good example is Tampa Bay’s ABC task force, a group of business and community leaders formed to figure out how to keep major league baseball in the region.
The best of these committees follow Consumer Reports’ promises. They start by announcing their purpose and whom they represent in their deliberations, establishing public trust. If they are chosen well, they will represent all sectors of the community, giving the committee legitimacy. (In other words, ensuring that no single faction will get its way.)
The best blue ribbon committees go about their work in ways that are transparently fair and reliable. This is where these committees often stumble: They start out thinking their members’ reputations are so strong that they don’t need to open their meetings to observers, and, sadly, they aren’t.
This became an issue in Atlanta in 2010 when the Atlanta Journal-Constitution questioned a blue ribbon committee that was looking into whether some public schools altered standardized test scores in order to look better. The newspaper raised concerns about the committee’s members, suggesting they were too close to the school system. But mostly it criticized the process: School system officials were too deeply involved in the committee’s work, the newspaper said. Others defended the panel’s work, accusing the newspaper of judging the committee’s work before it was finished, but the damage was done. If people didn’t like the committee’s report, the newspaper had given them the perfect excuse: It was influenced by the school system and its allies.
Even if you do everything perfectly, you’ll be criticized. After all, this is community work, and criticism comes with the territory. Consumer Reports has been criticized and occasionally sued over the years. It has even been wrong on rare occasions because of mistakes in testing. But the public’s confidence in Consumer Reports’ judgment has remained strong—strong enough to bring companies like Apple to heel—because it never forgets its promises: trust, legitimacy, fairness and reliability.