Target Green

Q&A: George Basile and Kristina Skierka

Bite Communications recently published “Greenwashing: A Perfect Storm,” a whitepaper that examines the public interest in environmentalism and its impact on the PR industry. The study’s authors, George Basile and Kristina Skierka of Bite Communications’ cleantech practice, agreed to answer a few questions via e-mail for Target Green about the study and why PR pros should embark on green campaigns with some caution.

Target Green: Do you think it is a good idea for a company to do something towards going green — even if the step is so small that some could perceive it as greenwashing?

Absolutely. Look, the truth is, we all need to take some pretty dramatic action to protect our climate and preserve our environment. Based on our experience, first, small steps – such as banning Styrofoam cups or instituting telecommuting programs – end-up creating momentum within organizations. The problem we’re starting to see is that many companies are trying to do this on their own, without a deep understanding of sustainability or eco influencers – creating a breeding ground for greenwashing. Worse, companies that treat eco communications the same as any other platform or product launch are threatening no only “green” efforts, but the corporate brand itself. Environmental communications are different, and must be backed up by authentic, legitimate action. The size of a “small step” would not be the cause of a greenwashing claim, as long as that step is not blown out of proportion for what it really is. It does matter that companies create environmental leadership initiatives that address their comparative corporate footprint and system influence. Without the latter – which comes down to a company’s vision and mission – environmental leadership efforts will be limited in terms of effectives and brand value. In the worst case, companies who fail to define their “terms” risk pursuing a number of ad-hoc costly actions that do not add up to an effective leadership, brand, communications or operational platform.

Target Green: The whitepaper points out that activist journalists are forcing companies to be increasingly aware of greenwashing. What can PR pros do to ensure they reach out to activist media?

Indeed, this century has seen the birth of a new kind of corporate environmentalism — which has mesmerized today’s real-time, all-the-time media. Since we’re in an era where a significant majority of the population — from CEOs to mail clerks — considers themselves an environmentalist, what happens when everyone also is a journalist? Greenwashing becomes the cause célèbre. We are just beginning to see the effects of a new citizen media (e.g., bloggers and ubiquitous video) and the ability of a single human being to amplify a message, drive an issue, or affect a well-cultivated corporate brand.

Public relations professionals – client side or agency side – must do the due diligence to figure out which bloggers and citizen media are watching them, and include them in outreach efforts – same as they would other reporters. Take the example of what happened with Target when it told that the company was unable to respond to their concerns because “Target does not participate with nontraditional media outlets.” The voice Target was trying to squelch ended up in the New York Times. It will also be increasingly important to use a Web 2.0 approach, creating press releases, and communications vehicles that incorporate social media tools and outlets.

Even with a focus on citizen media, PR pros must reach back to authenticity and transparency as founding principles for the stories they help to build. With the global reach, dynamics and speed of new social media, there is no substitute for building a solid story and proof points that can stand on its own legs in the ever-changing media marketplace.

Target Green: Authenticity and transparency are often mentioned in the whitepaper and in discussions about greenwashing. What do you mean when you use these terms?

As we point out in the paper, what constitutes greenwashing has become a moving target and has created a threatening backdrop for ecologically conscious efforts. The antidote – regardless of the changing nature of “greenwashing” — is telling an authentic green story and being open and transparent about both your business’ strengths and challenges when integrating environmental and social aspects.

In terms of corporate environmental campaigns, authenticity is found in clear, consistent action that is directly linked to business drivers and to an overall vision of success. The days of thinking of environmental efforts as mostly self-sacrificing are over. Greener business strategies and communications based on self-sacrifice are not credible with either internal or external audiences. Effective and authentic sustainability strategies, by definition, must also be effective business strategies that build to a more sustainable future. This requires an increasingly direct and mutually informed linkage between business strategy, business operations and communications. In our paper we cite some great examples – including Sun Microsystems and Applied Materials – that illustrate the congruency of eco product innovation occurring hand-in-hand with changes in operations (e.g., energy efficiency) – creating a believable campaign. The public — and Wall Street – will dismiss corporate green initiatives that seem to be bad for business.

By transparency, we mean proactive disclosure of any all things related to environmental and “green” efforts. It’s hard to execute a flawless environmental leadership campaign, especially for large existing businesses; the field is evolving incredibly quickly, as is the regulatory landscape. Corporations don’t need to be perfect, but they do need to be honest, own their liabilities and deliver on promises. Toyota faced this challenge recently when the company – despite the green “cred” of the Prius — failed to support increased fuel efficiency standards (or improve the overall efficiency of its fleet). Authenticity and transparency in these situations can be the difference between ongoing success and crisis control.

1 Comment so far

  1. Scott Hepburn on April 6th, 2008

    Very informative post, Aarti.

    There’s no doubt that “green marketing” is becoming a hot trend in 2008. As a copywriter for a marketing and PR franchise with stores in 20 states, I do a lot of writing for clients who want to promote their green initiatives. There’s a fine line between showcasing a legitimate shift toward eco-sustainability and overhyping a token initiative.

    With so much attention on the major campaigns — Al Gore’s climate change campaign comes to mind — do you see room for small businesses to trumpet their comparatively modest efforts?

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