April 21, 2008
Copyright © 2008 PRSA. All rights reserved.
By Billy Warden and Greg Behr
Certainty is no fun. Certainly, certainty is no test of talent. Successes and heroes are made on the frontiers. To every communications pro who longs for such adventure, we say welcome to the green revolution.
Going green means challenging almost every aspect of our traditional way of life — from how you get to work to how you raise your baby. It also means challenging our way of considering and communicating organizational goals and achievements.
With Earth Day here and more pressing than ever, we'd like to celebrate both the certainty of green's value and the uncertainties that can ultimately make us sharper strategists and communicators.
Recently, we joined a panel to chat with local PR folks about green communications. Their expressions ranged from perplexed to pained, and the questions followed suit. How do you know if what your client is doing is worth talking about? How do you talk about it? How do you respond when somebody says — as somebody will — you're not doing enough?
These questions are tough because this revolution is not about a simple set of solutions and the conversation can be contentious.
The auto and oil industries recently clashed over the future of energy and conservation in a special section of The Wall Street Journal this past March 24. It was much the same story at a gathering of energy experts at North Carolina State University. A friend called it “point/counterpoint ping-pong, but in a hopeful way.” Corn-based ethanol, once saluted as a savior, is now roasted on the cover of Time magazine. Green technologies are still subject to re-evaluation, even as politicians and investors jump on board, and we place not only our planet’s hopes but also our communications plans on them.
But one thing is for sure: Green isn’t going away. General Electric CEO Jeffrey Immelt believes this, and that's why he champions government-mandated carbon caps. Agree or not, he is a leader turning uncertainty into strategy and action.
Green buzz is only growing. The blogosphere registered 83,000 messages on “sustainability” in September 2006, according to a Nielsen Online report, compared to 172,000 last December. Much of the discussion focuses on greenwashing, or the way companies falsely purport green efforts.
Again, welcome to the frontier, where your most promising clients might be misfires and your attempts to speak up might get you strung up. But uncertainty may be the best thing to happen to the PR profession. Too often, our strategies and tactics — like those of most businesses — rely on the same old playbook. We trust what our clients tell us and we distribute that information through the usual channels.
Green communications demand extra vigilance and creativity. We need to keep up with the science as it shifts and settles. Because much of this is new, we can get involved at the start along with our friends in, say, engineering and science.
We need to learn to speak in new voices. The traditional PR voice that trumpets “firsts” and “bests” is OK for some accounts, but going green is a more humble endeavor. Much like after messing up someone’s house at a party (and we have all helped mess up the planet), you don't want to be self-congratulatory about cleaning it up. As a Nielsen researcher points out, one of the most interesting green communications is Patagonia’s Footprint Chronicles. The clothing-maker talks about how it does a pretty good job at being green, and how it could do better.
Finally, we need to get personally involved. What are your agency and household doing to go green? Take on a pet project or two. You will appreciate the challenges of going green, and you will establish credibility with clients.
None of this is easy, but grabbing the chance to lead on green is worth the effort, that’s for certain.
Billy Warden and Greg Behr are communications strategists at the Raleigh,N.C.-based Capstrat.