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The State of Environmental Communication: A Survey of PRSA Members

Publication Date: 2011 Winter

Source: SO03 Public Relations Journal
Product Code: 6D-050106
Organization/Author/Firm: Denise S. Bortree
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Using data collected in a national survey of the professional group Public Relations Society of America (PRSA), this study examines the way that organizations are communicating about the environment. This baseline study reports on the most common environmental topics that corporations and government entities communicate about, the most common channels of communication used to deliver messages about the environment, the publics most often targeted with environmental messages, the level of transparency in organizations’ environmental communication, and the level of environmental knowledge and attitude among public relations practitioners. The findings suggest a broad range of topics and channels are being used for environmental communication. A strong link emerged between public relations practitioners’ environmental knowledge, environmental attitudes, and the volume of communication being disseminated from their organizations. Too, as predicted by the study, organizations that were more environmentally transparent tended to engage in more environmental communication. Implications of the findings are discussed.

Communication about environmental behaviors and policies continues to be a critical area of focus for corporations. The April 2010 oil spill in the US Gulf coast and the massive public relations effort by British Petroleum (BP) Oil to respond to it, once again illustrate the importance of consistent and transparent environmental communication (Elmets, 2010; Myers, 2010). Earning a reputation as an environmentally responsible organization can bolster an organization’s legitimacy and create goodwill that can help an organization survive a major crisis. Organizations that have sound policies and practices toward the environment and communicate about them in a credible way earn environmental legitimacy (Hunter & Bansal, 2007). This means engaging in transparent communication about environmental dealings in order to earn the respect of key audiences.

The study presented here takes the first step toward understanding how organizations communicate about their environmental policies and practices and how public relations practitioners perceive the environmental transparency of their organizations. Very little research has focused on the content of environmental communication, the ways organizations are delivering their environmental messages, and no research has examined the role of public relations practitioners in this practice. What is needed is a broad baseline understanding of environmental communication, including content and delivery of communication and the characteristics of the communicators. This study examines environmental communication through a survey of public relations practitioners who have their fingers on the pulse of organizations’ communication. It asks practitioners to report on their organization’s amount, topics, channels of communication, level of transparency in communication, and audiences for the communication. In addition, the study explores characteristics of communicators and examines whether they are related to the attributes of environmental communication.
Results provide insight into the kinds of topics and channels organizations are using to communicate about environmental topics. Potential problems with current practices are identified, and suggestions for future communication development are offered.

This study was funded by the Arthur W. Page Center at Penn State University.

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