Tip Sheet: Avoid the Traps of Greenblushing and -bashing

As the learned philosopher (and occasional movie star) Kermit the Frog opined, “It’s not easy being green,” especially these days. Not only is there the view in certain circles that corporate social responsibility is for tree huggers and has no place in a business and communications strategy, now those who believe we must do something about sustainability must be mindful of a new series of pitfalls. It is enough to make you think twice, for sure.

Many of us are already familiar with the term greenwashing—overstating your sustainability activities and commitments to get credit for being corporately responsible. Countless pundits have criticized Big Oil, Big Tobacco or big business for PR and ad campaigns that tout their environmental responsibility and community activities while they continue to operate in less than responsible ways elsewhere. Clearly, this disconnect is not sustainable—pun intended.

Now we have “greenblushing” and “greenbashing” to contend with, as we try to improve sustainability, bottom-line productivity and enhance corporate reputation.

Greenblushing, reportedly coined by Greg Labar at Dix & Eaton, connotes an aversion to communicating legitimate sustainability activities for fear of being accused of overstating them or, worse, not doing enough. It is a cousin to the old strategy of “let’s just do the right thing and get caught in the act” instead of taking credit for our CSR programs.

Further, we have greenbashing, a concept proposed by Shari Shapiro of Obermayer, Rebmann, Maxwell and Hippel, which addresses the tendency of naysayers to associate outrageous costs or unknown dangers to being a socially responsible company. Inevitably, so the theory goes, you will disappoint someone, encounter market-based or operational roadblocks and have to cut back—so why start in the first place?

Like any sound criticism, each of these terms has some grounding in common sense and must be factored in when developing CSR communications strategies.

For example, no serious PR professional would ever suggest their company or client make claims the facts don’t support, just to look better to your stakeholders. And while this may still happen in some instances, for most of us, avoiding greenwashing makes sense, to be sure.

Similarly, few of us would advocate the opposite, e.g. hiding your light under a bushel and hoping the outside world will notice you. So greenblushing should also be avoided. The shortcomings of this concept are obvious. Assuming you are doing the right thing, it is unrealistic to expect stakeholders will notice without a little help from you.

Finally, giving in to the prophets of doom is not something that sits well with most serious communicators. In my view, succumbing to greenbashing is similar to the “don’t raise expectations you can’t meet” argument that has halted many communications initiatives in the past.

If we listened to those advocating the status quo, we would soon find ourselves behind our competitors and disappointing our stakeholders who expect more, not less, when it comes to sustainability.

So, what is a well-intentioned communications professional to do when faced with the CSR challenge?

As is usually the case, the best advice is often the simplest. In formulating a CSR communications strategy for your company or client, consider the following:

Be authentic and true to your company culture and training as a communications professional.

Identify viable opportunities to address sustainability in your company or organization —short and long term—and then build well-researched campaigns to leverage them in a strategic way.

Avoid the one-hit-wonder or drive-by CSR program or activity. Over time, it will likely prove to do more damage than doing nothing at all.

Only by selecting smart, viable programs for your company will you get the reputational benefits you are seeking and avoid succumbing to greenwashing, greenblushing or greenbashing, or any other trap, for that matter.

In the process, you just may prove that being green is not so hard after all. Sorry Kermit. Good luck with your new movie though. PRN

[Editor’s note: Enter your CSR program now in PR News’ CSR Awards; visit www.prnewsonline.com/awards/csr2011.html]


Larry Parnell is an associate professor of Strategic PR at George Washington University’s Graduate School of Political Management, and an independent consultant focusing on corporate communications strategy, CSR and issues management. He can be reached at lparnell@gwu.edu.