Q&A: George Basile and Kristina Skierka

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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.

Posted at PR Week
By Aarti Shah

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 ShapingYouth.org 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.

   

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