Green Corporate Communications: The Unstoppable Urge to Talk the Talk

Joel_makower_jpegsOriginally posted Feb. 18, 2008
by Joel Makower, Two Steps Forward

I’ve spent the past few weeks on the road talking about the State of Green Business,
listening to the questions and concerns of audiences at the companies
and conferences I’ve addressed. There’s one constant query: In a world
gone green, how does a company make itself heard, credibly and
authentically? And how does it do this in a way that minimizes the
risks of being charged with greenwash, or worse?

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The questions themselves represent a sea change. For years,
companies have been satisfied to walk more than talk — that is, do
more, environmentally speaking, than they’d publicly disclose. It’s not
that these companies were being virtuous, or that they didn’t care
about the world knowing of their green commitments and achievements.
Far from it. But the corporate risks of sticking one’s neck out,
calling attention to what a company is doing right, often unwittingly
illuminates environmental problems about which the public wasn’t aware.
(You’re using 10% organic cotton? Why? Oh, because growing cotton
requires intensive pesticides, harming groundwater, farmworkers, and
wildlife? Gee, why only 10%? Why not 20%?)

So, being humble was a virtue. Of course, companies maintained hoped
that some enterprising reporter or activist would catch them in the act
of being good and lead to positive press or word of mouth. It happened
from time to time, but not often enough.

Now things are changing. As the conversation has ratcheted up in
recent months, being quiet is no longer an asset. Companies are being
pressed to talk about what they’re doing — and not doing — by
customers, employees, investors, activists, and others. Previously
reclusive companies are rethinking their taciturn strategies.

Suffice to say, shyness isn’t something that becomes a lot of
companies, many of which have no problem shouting their stories from
the rooftops. Some of these stories are worthy of attention; many
aren’t. Unfortunately, there’s no correlation between signal and noise,
as a recent study by the U.K. firm Genesys Conferencing found out:

U.K. companies are failing to match fine words with
positive action in implementing green policies throughout the business,
with fewer than one third of respondents believing that they are moving
strongly or very strongly to adopting ‘green’ policies in their
organisations.

"Visitors to any company’s website today are almost certain to
find a stated commitment to the environment," says Jerona Noonan, sales
director, Genesys Conferencing.  "Yet, as this survey shows, to-date in
most businesses this has not been put into practice in the form of
positive environmental initiatives.

The need to align the walk-talk ratio has caught the attention of those in the business of helping companies
tell their stories. They, in turn, are sharing their insights with the
rest of us. A sampling of what’s crossed my in-box in recent weeks:

  • A new report on Corporate Social Responsibility and Sustainability Communications (Download — PDF)
    from the PR firm Edelman covers the CSR landscape, explaining how
    employees and socially responsible investors increasingly drive
    companies’ communications strategies, though these same stakeholders
    often criticize companies for the difficulty they have in communicating
    with companies on CSR issues. The report, based on a survey of
    companies, investors, and NGOs, cites case studies from Chiquita, Gap,
    IKEA, JPMorgan, Reuters, Timberland, and others.
  •  

  • Bite PR this month published a report on Greenwashing (Download — PDF),
    subtitled "A Perfect Storm," where, it maintains, "environmental
    impacts, public interest, media attention, and public policy combine to
    rapidly heighten skepticism and challenge the grand corporate
    environmental gestures of 2006 and 2007." To say nothing of 2008 and
    beyond. That greenwashing itself is a moving target "has created a
    threatening backdrop for ecologically conscious [company] efforts," it
    states. It counsels authenticity and describes four steps companies
    need to climb up the "leadership ladder" to garner green legitimacy
    "while preempting greenwashing threats."
  •  

  • Marketing agency EcoAlign has published an "EcoPinion Survey" entitled The Green Gap: Communications and Language (Download here — registration required), based on a survey of U.S. citizenry. The survey

    confirms the existence of a green gap between the
    communications and language commonly used by companies and stakeholders
    in the energy and environment space and customers’ understanding,
    acceptance and perceptions of value around terms such as energy
    efficiency, energy conservation, demand response, smart energy and
    clean energy. The green gap in communications contributes to a growing
    misalignment between customers’ stated intentions, e.g., their desire
    to be more green or frugal with energy consumption, and their actual
    behavior

    Translation: When it comes to energy and environment, companies
    don’t speak to consumers in a language they understand, undermining
    green behavior.

    For example, most consumers can’t articulate the difference between
    the "energy conservation" and "energy efficiency" and only one in three
    Americans understands the term "smart energy." Four in ten don’t know
    what "demand response" refers to (and the rest are probably lying —
    it’s pretty geeky terminology).

  • And then there’s Getty Images, which recently published its annual MAP Report on Going Green (cost is $750, but free excerpts here — PDF).
    The study attempted to look at the images that most resonate with
    consumers on environmental topics. Getty assessed 2,500 advertising
    campaigns from last year and concluded that many of the conventional
    images used to promote green campaigns were in danger of becoming
    visual clichés. Getty also surveyed consumers about which shade of
    greens they most associated with the environment, showing them four
    samples: forest, kelly, olive, and lime. For what it’s worth, forest
    green won, hands down. (I interviewed Getty’s Denise Waggoner on the
    topic a few months ago for GreenBiz Radio, which you can listen to here.)

    What does it all mean? The sum of all of these reports is pretty
    clear: Talking the green talk is no simple matter, what with the lack
    of definitions, the high expectations, and the countless critics and
    watchdogs ready to pounce if you don’t get it right. The public is
    hungry for companies to look up to, but they don’t trust what they
    hear. Like an oft-spurned lover, they are cautious and wary of being
    seduced — though always hoping that this time it just might be the real
    deal.


  • Joel Makower is executive editor of GreenBiz.com http://www.greenbiz.com/, and writes the blog Two Steps Forward http://makower.typepad.com/joel_makower/, where this article originally appeared. Reprinted with permission.

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