Consumers are starting to flex their newfound muscle

Stef Gray recently delivered a petition to Sallie Mae's Washington office, asking the giant private lender to eliminate a fee that unemployed college graduates must pay to suspend payments until they find a job.

The 23-year-old New Yorker's online petition had attracted 76,000 signers by the time Gray dropped it off. Within hours, Sallie Mae retreated. It's not getting rid of the fee. But rather than pocket the fees, Sallie Mae says that — starting with forbearances granted this year — it will apply the money to borrowers' balances once they get on track with payments.

"I was completely stoked. I was jumping up and down," says Gray, adding that she still has more to do. She's not abandoning her campaign until Sallie Mae drops the fee.

Gray's petition and similar online campaigns represent a huge shift in consumer empowerment. Until now, aggrieved consumers could only write a letter, make some calls or send off a pointed email that might languish unanswered. And if they were really mad, they might take their business elsewhere. Corporations liked it this way.

But social media such as Facebook, YouTube and Twitter, as well as petition websites like Change.org, have altered the rules of the game. An individual can air a grievance to like-minded consumers, who can then quickly spread the word to thousands and attract large numbers of people to support the cause. These campaigns can't easily be brushed off by companies.

"Consumers now have a voice that counts," says Gerry Corbett, chief executive of the Public Relations Society of America. "Everybody can get together and talk about common issues and goals. And if it makes sense, then everybody can reach out and put pressure on companies to do the right thing."

"They really never have had power like this before," Mary Monahan, research director for Javelin Strategy & Research, says of consumers.

One of the most successful protesters — and one we can all learn from — is Molly Katchpole, the 22-year-old whose petition against Bank of America's proposed $5 monthly debit card fee went viral last year and attracted more than 300,000 signatures.

"You can't hide that. If you are a company, you can't downplay the number of people who are upset," Katchpole says.

Katchpole, a resident of the District of Columbia, says the timing was right: The Occupy Wall Street movement had just gotten under way and people unable to join that movement could sign her petition instead.

A separate Facebook campaign encouraged consumers to switch to small banks or credit unions.

It took more than four weeks — and much bad publicity — before Bank of America retreated from the fee.

But Katchpole wasn't done. A Verizon customer, Katchpole started another petition in December, this one against Verizon's plan to charge a $2 fee for a one-time online or telephone payment. More than 130,000 people signed on within hours. The petition and other outcries prompted Verizon to quickly back down.

Gray says Katchpole's success with Bank of America inspired her in November to start the Sallie Mae petition. Unable to find a job after graduating from college last year, Gray received a forbearance on three private loans from Sallie Mae.

The lender charges $50 per loan — up to a maximum of $150 — to suspend payments for three months. Gray argued that Sallie Mae should be helping troubled borrowers, not gouging them. Besides, she noted, Sallie Mae still earns interest on loans in forbearance. Gray says she borrowed $40,000 from Sallie Mae and her balance has grown to $65,000.

Sallie Mae spokeswoman Patricia Christel says that forbearance should be the last resort for borrowers and that the fee is a "good-faith payment." She says Sallie Mae had been thinking about modifying the fee for some time, and the petition simply confirmed that there was an "appetite" for that.

Gray, who was granted her forbearance last year and has paid $300 in fees, won't benefit from Sallie Mae's change of heart. But she hasn't let up. Her online petition now has more than 117,000 signatures.

Katchpole and Gray launched their protests at Change.org, which made the petition platform available last year.

Talk about consumer angst. So far, 50,000 petitions have been created — 10,000 of them last month alone, says Charlotte Hill, a spokeswoman for Change.org. And the site added 1 million users last month who started or signed a petition. Change.org has nearly 141,000 users in Maryland, including 23,000 in Baltimore.

Change.org offers tips on the site on how to write an effective petition. If a protest takes off, Hill says, staffers step in to offer strategy advice and to reach out to the mainstream media to call attention to the protest.

If you are going to join this protest movement, Katchpole advises acting quickly when an unfair business practice crops up — and while consumers are still upset about it.

"Make sure you can really spell out your argument and be able to articulate it in a way that will appeal to all types of people," she says. Make your argument concisely and calmly. Anger can turn people off, she says.

Hill says petitions must be addressed to the decision-maker with the power to fix the wrong. Each time someone signs a Change.org petition, the targeted company receives an email. But emails can be blocked, and Hill encourages people to also hand-deliver their petitions.

In addition, successful campaigns can't rely only on social media; they also need the outreach that traditional media — newspapers, radio and television — can provide, says Paul Levinson, a communications and media professor at Fordham University in New York.

"Corporations don't like to see themselves bad-mouthed on television," he says.

Of course, not every protest works. A Target employee, for instance, collected more than 200,000 signatures on a petition to stop the retailer from opening on Thanksgiving and disrupting workers' holiday. Target didn't budge, and some petitions sprang up supporting the retailer.

Levinson says the Target employees' plight didn't generate much sympathy during a time of high unemployment.

"A lot of people felt those [workers] are lucky to have a job," he says.

Stephen Brobeck, executive director of the Consumer Federation of America, says most consumers are not going to support a protester without weighing the grievance and the remedy sought.

"If either is not reasonable, the person will be ignored," he says.

Still, businesses will have to adapt to this newfound empowerment among consumers.

Experts say that before corporations make a decision affecting their customer base, they now will have to step back and consider how consumers will view the move. And businesses will need a game plan on how to quickly respond to a protest, should one erupt.

Meanwhile, consumers should enjoy their new leverage — and take advantage of it.

eileen.ambrose@baltsun.com

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