Consumers Union holds first Activists Summit — (LOHUD)

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LOHUD THE JOURNAL NEWS

By ALISON BERT, THE JOURNAL NEWS

(Original publication: June 12, 2007)

YONKERS – Activists from 24 states gathered at the headquarters of Consumers Union in the city yesterday to hone their advocacy skills and lobby Congress in the nation’s capital today.

They are participating in the first Consumers Union Activist Summit, organized by the nonprofit organization that publishes Consumer Reports magazine.

“Consumers Union’s mission is to test, inform and protect, so the magazine is really giving readers the best information that we can based on our testing,” said Chris Meyer, who supervises campaign advocacy work for Consumers Union. “But the protect part – the other part of our mission – is the work we do in state houses and Congress to protect citizens from unscrupulous practices.”

In workshops yesterday, the 49 activists were taught how to get their message across clearly to policymakers and journalists, how to build coalitions in their hometowns and how to use the Internet to spread the word. Many were invited to the expenses-paid summit after becoming involved in campaigns through Consumers Union’s Web site.

Today, they’re lobbying for legislation to promote prescription drug safety, prevent the spread of hospital infections and protect consumers’ financial privacy.

Many are seasoned advocates who have organized local efforts, written to their legislators and newspapers, and met with key people in their fields of concern. In the media workshop, more than half raised their hands when asked if they’ve ever been interviewed by a journalist. Participants saw the summit as a way to take their advocacy to another level.

That was the case for Karen Miller of Manhattan, a lifelong member of Consumers Union who just retired as senior counsel for the New York City Department of Consumer Affairs. “I’m going to be learning about blogging, which is something I don’t know anything about,” said Miller, who grew up in Pound Ridge and has a keen interest in the affordability of prescription drugs.

Linda Kraus of Manhattan, a retired sales and marketing executive for the fashion industry, said the research done by Consumers Union, and the focus of its campaigns, will allow her to accomplish more than she could on her own.

“I’ve been utilizing Consumer Reports since about 1974, and I have the highest regard for this organization,” she said. “When I retired, I said to myself, ‘What can I do that would make me feel really good about expending efforts for all our national benefits?’ and nothing beckoned me quite the way Consumers Union did.”

Today, she will lobby for measures to stop the spread of infections in hospitals. Consumers Union advocates want hospitals to be required to disclose rates for patient infections, a growing number of which are becoming antibiotic resistant.

“We believe that will arm consumers with the information they need to choose the safest hospitals and put pressure on hospitals to do a better job of keeping patients safe,” Meyer said.

Some participants had personal reasons for getting involved. “My ex-father-in-law’s wife committed suicide as a result of drugs,” said Bob Stine of San Mateo, Calif., naming the antidepressant he believes was at fault.

Part of the legislation he’s lobbying for would require drug companies to perform follow-up safety studies on drugs once they are on the market, and change warning labels if serious hazards appear.

Stine, a retired lead mechanic for United Airlines, came to the summit with hopes of becoming “more effective” in furthering the cause.

In one workshop, media specialists coached participants on how to talk to journalists to be quoted accurately on the issues that are most relevant.

“Instead of trying to be encyclopedic about the subject, you’re really better off choosing a few key messages … and try to repeat them as often as you can,” Advocacy Media Director Michael McCauley said. He said the message should state the problem and solution and conclude with a “call to action.”

In another workshop, Consumers Union representatives from the Washington, D.C., office gave tips on how to lobby policymakers. Senior Counsel Chris Murray urged participants to keep the message short and simple.

“Make a clear ask, something like, ‘Vote yes or vote no on Senate Bill 1465,” he said. “You need to do their job for them a little bit; give them a good anecdote that states the cause, give them a good fact.”

Senior Policy Analyst Jeannine Kenney suggested building a relationship with legislative assistants – the staffers who advise members of Congress on policy – saying they often sway the opinions of those they work for.

And plan to follow up, she added: “The meeting is just the first step.”

Reach Alison Bert at abert@lohud.com or 914-694-5085.  E-MAIL ARTICLE |  PRINTER-FRIENDLY FORMAT |  E-MAIL ALERTS