Why is this? First, local communities are often flashpoints for environmental grievances. A small group of Vermont consumers, for example, launched the movement to eliminate Styrofoam packaging from every McDonald’s in the United States. In the tightly networked world of green advocates, today’s neighborhood rally can quickly become tomorrow’s Greenpeace cause célèbre—as the McDonald’s case demonstrates. Also, in times of crisis, community leaders are important corporate “character references” that national journalists and others turn to for backgrounding.
Today, however, it’s much harder for PR people to forge a strong community-based environmental reputation. Most audiences have become both more sophisticated and more skeptical about green claims emanating from business. A recent UK survey found that complains about corporate “greenmail” have risen fourfold since 2007.
Let’s review some insights into the difficult challenge of using community relations to build a company’s environmental reputation:
- Rethink “Local:” Once upon a time, that what happened in Peoria was a self-contained event that rarely traveled beyond its borders. Today, due largely to social networking, there is really no such thing as “local” in this sense. A battery of environmental portals like Environmental Network News exist to retrieve news from every nook and cranny and rebroadcast it via tweets and RSS feeds to tens of thousands of subscribers—including national journalists and activists. In short, local these days is national, and PR practitioners should re-orient their planning accordingly.
- Use the Power of Social Networks: We often think of blogs, message boards and other Internet-based communications as national reputation builders. But they can be equally effective with local communities. Intranets, for example, are a dynamic way to keep employees informed about company environmental achievements. Targeted webinars have been used to educate local audiences about key company issues. And all local communications/marketing—advertising, media appearances, civic programs —can refer audiences to the company’s online environmental content.
- Engage in Your Communities: The most valuable local sponsorships emerge when companies are fully engaged in the warp and woof of their communities. For example, two St. Paul companies—the cosmetics firm Aveda and decorative grilling manufacturer Colonial Craft—found a dynamic cause and a partner in an obscure community organization called Winwoods. The issue: 2.7 million acres of hardwood forest, comparable to the size of Connecticut, are cut down each year to build wooden pallets that, in half the cases, are used once then destroyed. Thanks to Aveda’s seed funding and Colonial Craft’s manufacturing expertise, the partnership is now recycling pallets into furniture and mulch—creating a sustainable business that employs disabled persons as workers.
- Avoid “Greenwash:” Local customers are always the arbiters of a company’s brand. That is especially true in the case of a firm’s environmental claims, which they hold to an especially high standard. If the message falls short of the reality, a brand can find itself dying by a thousand cuts. That is why it’s essential that your environmental claims never get ahead of the facts. Even a company as seeming bullet-proof in this regard as Whole Foods Market can stumble. A blogger recently researched the provenance of cedar grilling planks selling at her local SoHo New York store and discovered that they were cut in Canada, processed in China and packaged in the United States—an example, as she broadcast on her site, of the company’s carbon-intensive supply chain at odds with the brand reputation.
- Hit the Basics—And Then Some: As noted earlier, good, trusting relationships with local journalists and civic leaders are the cornerstones of a company’s national environmental reputation. But the traditional techniques—press releases and facilities tours—will not secure that reputation. First, organizations need to be genuinely engaged in the local community through the kind of creative collaborations discussed earlier. Second, the CEO should have a relationship with these local leaders, especially if the community in question is a key subsidiary site. Finally, employees in each company location should be engaged in supporting and/or challenging the firm’s environmental track record.
- Find out “How am I Doin’?” Wal-mart has received much press recently for its Sustainability Index, based on a survey of suppliers about their green practices. Surveys are just as valuable applied in the opposite direction: to assess how the organization itself is perceived by the communities where it operates. Among the findings of these reputation surveys are how well the organization is living up to its environmental responsibilities and intentions, where misconceptions lie and what steps it might take to address these and strengthen its reputation. This is an invaluable compass for future programming as well as an outstanding tool to strengthen local transparency.
In conclusion, don’t short sell the importance of relations with local community groups. This is the frontline of your firm’s environmental reputation, and should be prioritized as such.
Robbin S. Goodman is Executive Vice President and a partner at Makovsky + Company, one of the top 15 independent public relations firms in New York City and a co-founder of Interraction, a consortium of experts from a variety of business disciplines working together to address the risks and opportunities presented by climate change.