Creating a Clear Voice to Avoid Red Flags in Building Your Green Reputation

We’ve all learned the parallels of LinkedIn to office settings and Twitter to cocktail receptions. For those not experiencing eco-angst or green fatigue, have you considered that first impression when you enter a green conversation? Are you prepared for how it may affect your reputation as well as those of your clients?

Everyone is glad you made the effort to join the chat. At the same time, the effect is easily spoiled by lack of preparation. As in any encounter, it pays to think about what you want to convey and the action you expect to follow.

Green references expand beyond the environment to include topics from corporate profits to workforce well being. Few terms have legal definitions allowing abuse by intent or accident that may lead to accusations of greenwashing. PR advisors should remain vigilant and informed to avoid missteps. The principles of stewardship, social responsibility and economic viability are longstanding in the green community. Perhaps one day these holistic improvements will be incorporated into ongoing practices without the need to denote shades of green.

The traditional precepts for clarity, consistency, and credibility join compliance to support the grammar of green guide. Muddled allusions, overstatement, and unsubstantiated claims will not advance your client on the sustainable roadmap. Obscuring real or potential problems is not smart. These vulnerabilities will weaken your reputation and make everything suspect. Develop a simple and accurate way to frame the information so it does not escalate into a crisis at the outset. Follow a common sense approach bolstered by the Federal Trade Commission’s guidelines that warn against deception and misleading statements.

When developing a communications program for green strategies, verify that the client’s institutional body language aligns with actions. Statements that push credibility can jeopardize established business and hamper future projects. An audit of practices, policies and products or services, establishes a benchmark and frames the conversation. Before rather than during a campaign, consider the following:

•    Where does the organization rank on passion or an inclination to incorporate green policies and actions?

If it promotes green services, and does not recycle or require safety procedures, there is a division that will eventually taint your reputation.  As an example, a marketing colleague recently shared her experience with a green services company. When she asked the installer about company practices, she learned that the business, which built its credibility on sustainable operations, had just started a limited recycling program. The takeaways for public relations include: give everyone the tools to deliver a simple story; and ignore that green applies to all aspects of your business at your peril.

•    Where does the organization rank against industry competitors on sustainability?

 If it’s leading, is it in ways that matter to customers and community? Will the campaign require education to relate the achievements or distinctions to stakeholders? If actions are trailing, which factors make an authentic difference to the planet that are worthy of discussion? Do not hesitate to burrow through numbing facts to find what needs to be said.

Few companies lead in all categories. While me-too messaging is not advised, there are opportunities to differentiate by applying clarity and consistency to credible claims in a way that directly relates to your audiences. In fact, being first requires more aggressive education to show relevance. Build and guard green credentials to enhance your reputation.

Determine what is important to your customers and industry. Identify what is done well and investigate which certifications apply to the industry or practices. Evaluate which certifications and achievements will keep you on the forefront of your industry. Give priority to independent third-party multi-attribute reviews that add value to your message and meaning for your customers. Many third-party certifications provide not only a benchmark for best practices, but enable external stakeholders to make an apples-to-apples comparison of claims between companies.

Single attribute standards have limited value, but may be critical in a particular industry. Accept that education is needed for most certifications and what they signify. If the limited certifications are available, stay abreast of the trends by becoming active with trade association green committees, government resources, recognition programs, and members of business groups when addressing these topics at the local and national levels.

•    How does the culture value stewardship? Is the workforce engaged and how can you amplify their commitment into evangelists? 

One of the findings of the Sustainability Stakeholder Engagement conference earlier this year was that internal education often takes more time than external engagement. These internal voice boxes can be extremely effective in building your reputation with other audiences in numerous channels. As a bonus, you have direct access, if not control.

During one of my first green conferences, the CEO addressing the audience asked how many worked with a Fortune Magazine “Best Places to Work” organization. The simple survey added confidence to those with raised hands. At the same time it challenged the remainder to understand that green was more than recycling—people and communities are part of the equation. It opened my eyes to broader pitch and story ideas.

•    Are there champions to give voice and to push internal actions to greater achievement? What common ground is available for critics and champions?

Green policies supported at the top that give broad ownership to the outcomes ensure greater success. Nurture the champions with time and tools to find common points of agreement with skeptics and those less informed. Internal stakeholders need to understand the company’s positions and be able to articulate it externally in formal and informal settings.

If complicated technical issues cannot be converted to straightforward terms, your message will be lost. Give everyone the tools to broadcast the story and recognize their contribution. Create a chorus with a clear voice rather than a discordant jumble.

•    Is transparency valued as part of reputation management?

Ethical business practices and policies support authenticity. Failing to acknowledge basic principles will quickly develop red flags. Working in a transparent setting with clients committed to sustainable practices shared through authentic statements is a communications joy. Taking leadership within an industry, a community or an issue category creates story opportunities that are typically not part of the PR package.

Build a consistent story with facts—invigorate repetitions to make them memorable. Steer clear of misrepresentation and deception to avoid regulatory red flags. On my desk sits a reminder that more information does not build understanding. An old clipping lists the number of words in various documents—Pythagorean Theorem, 24 words; Ten Commandments, 67 words; and federal regulations on sale of cabbage, more than 25,000.
When more technical background is required, have it available. Transparency does not mean drowning in information.

While it seems obvious, environmental claims that are deceptive or misrepresent run the risk of placing your client in the spotlight via a Federal Trade Commission announcement. For example cautions against overstatement are plain. Comparisons should clearly present the basis for the comparison to avoid deception.

In addition, the client should be able to substantiate the comparison. Proof statements carefully to ensure you know how greenness is measured. Are boasts based on reductions and efficiencies per unit, per location or per year? Play devil’s advocate and stand firm in your counsel for clarity and accuracy. Periodically step back to take an objective view not only of particular messaging, but also of the corporate body language with respect to the triple bottom line. Your reputation cannot shelter actions that are counter to your green claims.

•    How does your message relate to larger sustainable issues?

Linking your client to broader topics offers a means to showcase your client’s green reputation in relation to social equity, economics and environment in ways that are relevant to internal and external audiences.

Individual actions matter. Collectively they multiply. Show how and why.
•    Connect your audience to the broader issue in a way that is relevant to their life—future generations, healthier air and living spaces, lower costs with increased efficiencies.
•    Reference specific ways that products, services and/or practices are part of the solution at the local regional or global level.
•    Demonstrate advantages to the consumer, community or business customers in making specific choices.
•    Reveal how it easy it can be.
•    Establish partnerships that support your goals and amplify your voice without having to create all the language and programs.

Like any PR initiative, green communications requires that you know the audience and communicate accordingly. When all the comparisons are made in degrees of green, distinguishing how one organization stands out from its competitors depends on the words that frame the story and the channels that deliver the information. Public relations practitioners have tremendous power to build authentic green reputations.

This article will appear in PR News' upcoming Guide to Best Practices in Green PR and Corporate Social Responsibility, Volume 3. It was written by Nancy Rogers, founder of the Green Earth PR Network and Atlanta Green Communicators. To order the guidebook or find out more information about it, go to