Newmark, Sklar, Sullivan Talk Consumer Protection With Consumer Reports and Consumerist

Last night’s panel (from left to right) Kevin McKean, Craig Newmark, Rachel Sklar, Ben Popken and Bob Sullivan

Last night, we hit a panel at 92Y Tribeca hosted by the Consumerist and Consumer Reports that focused on online media’s contribution to consumer protection.

The panel, moderated by Consumer Reports‘ editorial director Kevin McKean, featured Consumerist co-executive editor Ben Popken, founder Craig Newmark, former Huffington Post contributor Rachel Sklar (who is currently working for Abrams Research) and consumer reporter Bob Sullivan, who writes MSNBC’s the Red Tape Chronicles column.

Throughout the discussion, Sullivan represented a traditional media point of view while Popken commented on the differences a Web site like Consumerist can make in getting companies to recognize and react to consumer complaints. Newmark advocated social media and consumers’ individual responsibilities to speak up, while Sklar, quoting Ronald Reagan, warned consumers to “Trust, but verify,” their sources of information.

“Anybody who wants to can be an authority, can be a blog publisher, can make their opinion known, can make their experiences known, can join in a movement if they wish,” Sklar said.

More after the jump

The panel, which was officially titled “Defending the Endangered Consumer,” focused mainly on the new ways consumers complain or praise a company or product thanks to social media and new media journalists. McKean asked if consumer protection was better than it was 15 years ago, when the media really only had consumer reporters at newspapers and TV networks to help those who had complaints. Sullivan was not so sure things are any better now.

“The truth is, sites like the Red Tape Chronicles and the Consumerist are this odd extension now of customer service,” Sullivan said. “We help companies like Verizon and Comcast identify the squeakiest wheels. They take care of those — the 1 percent — the squeaky wheels go quiet and 99 percent of the public doesn’t get justice.”

Popken disagreed, pointing out that consumer reporters for traditional media outlets frequently met with this problem. They would seek help from corporate PR departments who would then make special exceptions for those squeakiest of wheels.

“The difference with what the Red Tape Chronicles does and what Consumerist does is that, while we might post the complaint and we post the resolution, it’s still all out there,” Popken said.

Even after a conflict is resolved to the complainant’s satisfaction, a quick search on Google will dig up the whole mess for all the world to see, he added.

Meanwhile, Newmark said it was important for consumers to participate in the discourse, by offering tips to Web sites like Consumerist or even just posting a review of a product. “The only way that these sites are going to work [is] if people start participating in the millions and tens of millions,” he said. “One review doesn’t matter very much, but if there’s millions, it matters.”

“Complaining is a lot like voting,” Sullivan agreed.

If you have ever posted a restaurant review — or even relied on one when choosing where to eat one night — you are participating. Do you find other consumers’ reviews helpful or annoying? Give us your feedback in the comments.

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