The Greening of P.R.: Read All About It

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by: Joel Makower

You wouldn't think that the world of green business would need much more publicity, given all the media stories, blogs, websites, TV shows, billboards, events, and other shout-outs plugging green companies, products, and services.

But get ready for more. The world of public relations has discovered green with a vengeance, and the big global firms seem locked, loaded, and ready to fire up their drum beating.

In just the past couple of weeks, two P.R. giants — Fleishman-Hillard and GolinHarris — have each announced "worldwide sustainability practices." They follow on the heels of other large firms that have set up practices focusing on sustainability and corporate responsibility, including Edelman, GCI Group, Ogilvy, and Weber Shandwick. Most of the other biggies — including Burson-Marsteller, Hill & Knowlton, Ketchum, Manning Selvage & Lee, and Porter Novelli — also have focused their sights on the green business world.

What's going on here is part of a sea change: green has gone from a movement to a market. It's no longer just a "nice to do." It's now strategic. As GolinHarris CEO Fred Cook put it:

Sustainability has grown from an important plank in a CSR program to become a global 'value.' Successful organizations must now look at sustainability issues as part of their bottom line — along with profit and community involvement.

But it's more than that. The greening of P.R. reflects a newfound reality: It's now safe, or at least safer, for companies to tell their good, green stories.

In recent years, companies walked more than they talked — that is, they did a lot more, environmentally speaking, than they took credit for. That may seem counterintuitive to what we expect from companies, but it was done out of necessity, not nicety. When companies hyped their environmental accomplishments, they found they often unwittingly illuminated problems the public didn't know they had. So, it was better just to do it — gaining business value in the form of lowering costs, attracting talent, retaining customers, and pleasing employees — and forgo the P.R. points.

I've previously told the story of Levi Strauss & Co.'s reluctance to talk about their organic cotton initiative for fear that it would bring increased scrutiny to the environmental impacts of conventional cotton, which represented 98% of Levi's cotton purchases. Such hesitation to hype is typical. For years, I've heard companies bemoan that they couldn't get credit for their environmental accomplishments for fear that whatever they were doing right might bring unwanted attention to the many things they were still doing, well, wrong.

But two companies helped change that. First was G.E., whose successful ecomagination campaign launch in 2005 signaled to the world that a big company that hadn't previously been seen as a green leader could come out publicly with a bold plan . . . and not get viciously attacked. (Indeed, more than two years later, G.E. execs remain high on the list of desired speakers at environmental and green business conferences.)

And then there is Wal-Mart, which in the past two years has unleashed a dizzying array of environmental commitments and initiatives. (Including two in the past week — see here and here.) Wal-Mart, while hardly universally admired among environmentalists, has managed to transform itself from a laggard to a leader in the eyes of at least some thought leaders.

Those two success stories seem to have made it safe for companies to jump back into the water — to be more public about their environmental goals and initiatives, even if they're less than perfect.

The water may still be a bit icy. Consider a just-released survey by Ipsos Reid, which found that "Consumers appear to be wary of companies who label their products as being 'green', or environmentally friendly." The study found that

seven in ten (70%) Americans either "strongly" (12%) or "somewhat" agree (58%) that "when companies call a product 'green' (meaning better for the environment), it is usually just a marketing tactic."

These P.R. firms will have their work cut out for them.

Of course, the bigger question is whether all of this P.R. heat will shed any actual light. That is, will the increased P.R. output and resulting media coverage reflect an increase in company efforts and performance, or just more attention to what has been happening all along? Will increased coverage of green business issues lead to a virtuous cycle, in which heightened public attention and expectations of companies lead to even more, and more substantive, business commitments and actions? Or will the public tire of a steady drumbeat of me-too green products and stories, thus feeding their existing skepticism and spurring them to get off the green bandwagon even before it reaches cruising speed?

It could go either way.

All of which leads me to challenge public relations professionals: Will you steer your clients beyond short-term media hits to create longer-term value by counseling them to aim high, to make bold, audacious commitments in order to stand out from the crowd? Or will you focus on short-term results, creating flash-in-the-pan media moments that celebrate incremental change in lieu of substantive environmental progress?

I'll be closely watching the forthcoming output of press releases and media events to see which way the P.R. winds are blowing.

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