All That Glitters isn’t Green

As never before, environmental sustainability programs offer PR professionals the opportunity to have a meaningful impact on the operations of the organizations we serve.  In few other areas are reputation and operations more closely linked. If we take the time and effort to learn about the kind of actions our companies can take to make a meaningful difference, we can provide counsel to our leadership not only on communicating change but driving it as well.

However, with this emerging role comes additional responsibility to ensure our companies are talking in the right way about their efforts. Unless you have been in a submarine under a polar ice cap, you see and read about green efforts underway everywhere. In general, that’s a good thing. On our present path, Glacier National Park will have no glaciers left by the year 2030, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. Scientists from the University of Arizona said in October that oceans will rise by a meter in the next century. And according to NASA and the World Health Organization, severe water shortages affecting at least 400 million people today will affect 4 billion people by 2050.

But the risk we run is saturating the public and indeed all constituencies with our “green news,” much as we did in the late 1990s with hyperbole on the leading technology we represented.  Some recent studies have shown that the media and consumers are already getting suspicious of green claims and wearying of so many green messages. If we continue to inundate them, we minimize news that really is valuable and important by surrounding it with things that aren’t. We’ll likely end up not only failing to get exposure for some of our important programs, but – much more dangerous – turn everyone off to hearing about environmental programs. 

Some of this lies in the fact that these days, everything that could conceivably be qualified as such is being promoted as an environmental initiative.  A leaf blower that runs on electricity instead of gasoline?  Call it a green machine.  A utility that operates multiple coal-fired plants but gives away CFL light bulbs?  A leader in the march toward clean energy.  At the least, this is attempting to make more of something than it really is.  At worst, it’s greenwashing.

As communications professionals, it is our responsibility to help our employers and clients establish when and how something should be promoted.  The best way to do so may be to institute a litmus test that programs, products or services must pass in order to be promoted as “green.”  Here are some questions your litmus test should include:

1.    Is the program/service/ product truly led by environmental objectives or does it just happen to seem like an environmentally positive action?
2.    Am I making a virtue out of necessity?  In other words, is my company is doing something green because we need to hedge our bets with renewable energy or counteract other ongoing negative environmental practices?
3.    Is this part of an overall green plan that we have outlined previously?
4.    Will this make a material difference to our customers/employees/whoever is affected?
5.    Can I limit the reach of the publicity efforts?  Perhaps to “green” media and bloggers, verticals or local media?

You may find that you’re making more of something than is really there. And let’s face it; in PR, this isn’t exactly unusual.  But in the case of environmental sustainability, you must hold yourself and your employer or client to a higher standard. 

This doesn’t mean you can’t or shouldn’t promote the program, service or product.  You just need to change how you do it.  Here are some suggestions:

1.    If it’s little more than a happy coincidence that your announcement has a green angle, don’t make it the lead, and don’t pitch it as a green story.  Just weave the environmental benefits into the body of your pitch or release.
2.    If you fit the virtuous necessity description as a fossil fuel, petrochemical or power concern, and in particular if you’re finding positive media coverage difficult, consider taking the spotlight off yourself and putting it on your customers or others to tell a story.  For example, survey business suppliers on whether they intend to look for alternative fuels over the next few years and report out your results.  As you pitch the story, you can subtly incorporate your own initiatives.
This is a strategy you could also apply if you don’t fit the virtuous necessity description but are having trouble breaking through with the media.  As they do with most pitches, reporters will be much more receptive to a broader story.
3.    If you’re trying to counteract a reputation based on past transgressions, it might be best to approach some NGOs and let them know what your plans are to change.  Seek their counsel and ask them to affirm your progress as you go.  Then, consider reaching out to some green media to let them know what you’re doing and where you are in your plan.  As they begin to give you more positive coverage, expand your reach to other media with in-person briefings.

If you follow these guidelines, you will help distinguish real environmental news from fluff or greenwashing.  The result should be more quality coverage from the media on environmental initiatives and a better response from the public.  And as a PR practitioner, you will have guided your organization in a more meaningful, genuine and sustainable direction.
This article was written by Ann Barlow, president of Peppercom’s West Coast office and head of GreenPepper, a service offering devoted to sustainability developed in response to demand from clients and passion among Peppercom employees. It was excerpted from the PR News Crisis Management Guidebook, Volume 2. To order a copy, visit the