The green power of public relations

I’ve asked Caroline Wilson to share some thoughts on the power of PR to change people’s behaviour around environmental issues, which she regularly explores at GoodGreenPR:

I sometimes think the ‘green’ issue for people working in PR is very similar to the familiar debate about the role of PR generally.  Should PR be about skilfully promoting and communicating the image, products and community profile that others high up the management tree set out?  Or should PR be part of that ‘dominant coalition‘ – there to counsel on the nature of that profile and business?

It’s exactly the same on green issues.  Whose job is greening?  Does PR play a role in any way other than to ensure stakeholders know about it?

Let’s take a scenario where the greening is decided by senior others, maybe engineers, maybe energy managers.  When it comes to the promotion, sadly this leaves PR ill-equipped to answer questions from an intelligent – and informed – public about the effectiveness or genuine nature of the greening, questions such as:

Will it reduce carbon emissions overall?  Does it just pass the carbon emissions onto another company or country down the line?  Is it a token gesture compared with the real carbon impact of the company? Isn’t the business fundamentally unsustainable?  How does this action stack up with what customers expect and what others in the same sector are doing or planning?

If the answers to these questions aren’t strong, it’s too late.  The result could be a whole lot of bad publicity and reduced credibility.

This isn’t to say that the PR is the only professional with a role. The engineers and the energy managers are the experts with the knowledge to navigate through those questions (in advance) and design and deliver the solutions on the ground.

But the reason for the key role of PR is that organisations are trying to hit a moving target.  There is no agreed shade of green to be, and an organisation’s key stakeholders probably don’t think the same now on green issues as they thought six months ago.  But don’t be misled into thinking that because generally speaking people aren’t doing much about climate change themselves they don’t care.

The Energy Savings Trust says that 80 per cent of people believe that climate change is having an impact on the UK right now even though 40 per cent are doing nothing themselves to reduce energy use.

That doesn’t mean they’re not interested or worried.  According to further research their reason for personal inaction might be because only 30 per cent think they can have much impact individually, whereas 72 per cent think business and industry do have a significant role.

The ‘horizon scanning‘ function of PR is such a vital tool on green issues, where the facts about climate change and public mood are constantly moving.

Only by having an idea about what key stakeholders think of climate change and your organisation’s role or potential role in combating it, plus an informed idea about how those views might develop, can PRs function at the management level they often seek.

The old saying ‘fortune favours the brave’ might just be true here.  Those PRs brave enough to look ahead and push their organisations to go as ‘green’ as they predict the public will want a few years down the line, might well be rewarded with more than a warm feeling of having made a difference.

Tip 49 on this article demonstrates the lead role that’s possible for those who get to grips with this issue.  It’s my view that holders of such important posts need to have as much PR know-how as technical.  I’d love to know what others think.

A former senior lecturer in PR at UCE Birmingham, UK, Caroline previously worked in PR and journalism and is currently a PhD research student at Institute of Energy and Sustainable Development, De Montfort University, Leicester, UK. 

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2 Replies to “The green power of public relations

  1. I echo Kristen's sentiments in welcoming you, Caroline, to PR Conversations to cover this increasingly relevant topic.

    If it hasn't crossed the pond and hit your radar yet, recently in Canada there has been a controversy about the marketing of one of lululemon athletica's products, its VitaSea shirt, which the company claimed contained "nutritious" seaweed in its fibre mix (and later it was explained that when an active woman perspired, these nutrients would be absorbed into her body). One of the better blog posts about it was by Colin McKay over at Canuckflack (where I chose to comment), Lululemon, CSR and product attributes

    Because lululemon has been a phenomenal (Canadian) marketing success story over the years (its customers are the active-wear clothing lines' biggest champions and evangelists), this controversy has been in the media a lot of late, as a major reputation management misstep on the Vancouver-based company's part. Now we are getting the secondary stories, including a representative from Terra Choice (an environmental marketing company) appearing on CTV's Canada AM this morning, to detail the The Six Sins of Greenwashing. I've included a link to the list with explanations, but briefly:

    Green-wash (green'wash', -wôsh') – verb: the act of misleading consumers regarding the environmental practices of a company or the environmental benefits of a product or service.

    1. Sin of the Hidden Trade-Off
    2. Sin of No Proof
    3. Sin of Vagueness
    4. Sin of Irrelevance
    5. Sin of Fibbing
    6. Sin of The Lesser of Two Evils

    (The CTV Canada AM website has the item housed as a video, but I couldn't get it to play: Six sins of greenwashing' reveal false claims so far.)

  2. Caroline,

    Thanks for joining us as a guest author and thanks to Heather for inviting you.

    I think you’ve hit the nail on the head for PR professionals (or other communicators) who want to be taken more seriously and earn a place at the strategic table. In my role at the International Fertilizer Industry Association (IFA), I am responsible for policy coordination, among other things. This means that I have to understand what all of my more technical experts are doing, understand the connections between them and manage the dialogue with stakeholders on the key issues. It’s about but explaining the why as well as the what (in both directions).

    As well as the external broadcasting, my role is about helping us internalize what we’re hearing from external publics and integrating that into our activities. Sometimes it just means changing how we talk about what we do, but other times, we modify what and how we do things to take on board outside views. Technical experts focused on their specialities may not come to the same place if left to their own devices because they’re looking at the world through a different lens. The PR job is a bit like being able to wear many different pairs of glasses and explain what you see to all the wearers so that their understanding of the world gets a little closer together.

    I lose a lot of patience with communicators who can’t tell you much about the business they work for but somehow think that they should be involved in strategy. It reminds me of an evergreen piece of career advice: always dress for the job you want, not the job you have. Communicators need to do their homework to make it to the strategy table.

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