How to Build — or Damage — Your Green Cred

GreenBiz logo2 Gail Whitman at GreenBiz provides a detailed example from Copenhagen of how an energy company degraded their green reputation through a poorly planned PR effort. The company, Essent B.V. ran into trouble because they didn't anticipate the different lenses which they would be viewed through, by the audience at Copenhagen and the world at large.

Posted Jan. 13, 2010
By Gail Whitman, GreenBiz

While business played a lower profile at COP15
than in the past, there was at least one memorable PR moment that holds
important lessons for businesses on how to build — or damage — a
reputation for sustainability.

The example I want to use is from the small Dutch energy company, Essent B.V., now owned by German multinational RWE.

In the fall of 2009, Essent launched an innovative public relations
campaign leading up to the UNFCCC conference in Copenhagen.They bought
100 electric vehicles and chose 100 Dutch students to drive the green
scooters to Copenhagen and engage in educational activities en route.
Students had to apply and those deemed most committed to climate action
drove on The Road to Copenhagen (R2C).

Essent also launched a fun viral campaign in support of R2C. The promotional YouTube video shows
young men and women happily scooting to Copenhagen, with slogans like
"Generate ideas with other people" and "Present your solutions @
COP15." Essent positioned itself as a big supporter of youth civil
society who were driving to make their opinions on climate change heard
in Copenhagen.
The drive took 10 days, with youth participants stopping each day to
hear lectures on clean energy, climate and sustainable development.
Dutch media covered this in various formats.

R2C participants learned a lot — many of them did not have much
in-depth knowledge of climate change in advance, but became
increasingly committed as they gained exposure "On the Road." R2C also
developed a "Climate Manifesto," which they intended to present to
fellow Dutchman Yvo de Boer when they arrived in Copenhagen.

This all sounds good. (If you work for an energy company, you might
wonder why you didn't think of it). The trouble is that this actually
is an example of light green reputation-building at best, or deep
greenwashing at worse.

Why so?

First of all, the parent company RWE is a longtime target of Greenpeace
for their clean coal and nuclear programs. Essent can't avoid this
association with happy scooters and a viral campaign — indeed, NGO
activists met the scooters at the German border and handed each of the
drivers a lump of coal.

Some of the scooter-kids were a bit confused and embarrassed — they
didn't know about RWE or the clean coal controversy. They couldn't
imagine why anyone would protest their fun clean drive. This made them
appear like ill-informed, superficial tourists rather than
knowledgeable members of the social movement on climate change. The
"real" NGO activists tried to educate them about RWE's poor track
record on renewable energy in Germany.

Then, when the scooter-kids arrived in Copenhagen, three went immediately to the Bella Centre (the site of COP15) to present their manifesto directly to Yvo de Boer. Coincidentally, this was the same infamous Monday
where thousands of official observers from civil society and science
were held up outside the conference gates for eight hours, with no
food, drink or toilets.

This was also when the second reputation issue came into play.
Surprisingly, when the scooter-kids (easily recognizable with bright
orange R2C helmets) arrived at 3 p.m., they were only in line long
enough to giggle before they were whisked through the gates.

Left behind were unlucky, mostly middle-aged, middle-class people
patiently waiting in line who were actually scientists, members of the
press, and representatives of many well known NGOs.

They were not happy at R2C jumping the COP15 queue. This
is understandable given that many of them missed their own official
side-events and probably none got to meet with de Boer.

One might ask, why had the R2C gang gotten such VIP treatment? It gave
the impression that the pressing media event with de Boer where they
handed over their climate manifesto was given higher priority than
side-events within the UNFCCC that day. Given the shut-out of the rest
of civil society in Copenhagen, this bordered on the ridiculous.

Most importantly, with an eye on the future, this type of publicity
stunt easily leaves Essent open to accusations of superficial greenwash
and corporate cronyism. (Just how did they get that meeting with de
Boer when the rest of civil society stood outside?)

The third reputation issue surfaced post-Copenhagen when R2C started to
ask for buyers for the electric scooters via Twitter. Less than a month
after the weak Copenhagen Accord was "noted," Essent didn't have any
ongoing plans for the electric scooters.

The overarching lesson here is that when a green energy company wants
to actively promote its green credentials at important meetings like
COP15, it should do so in a way that illustrates a deep and long-term
commitment to the issue and to civil society.

For instance, a company could engage with a variety of different (and
critical) climate change groups on a regular basis as opposed to only
focusing on one moment in time.

A company may consider participating in civil society programs like
KlimaForum (the people's summit at COP15) and not just focus on media
opportunities with the UN or national governments.

A company could ensure that it had ongoing plans for props like electric scooters (e.g., as donations to civil society groups).

Finally, a company presenting itself as a meaningful part of the social
movement on climate change could have voiced concern over the UNFCCC
shut-out of civil society in Copenhagen.

To build a truly sustainable business reputation, energy companies have to do more than promote youth tourism in Mexico City (COP16). Sustainable companies need to demonstrate real commitment to the ongoing UNFCCC process.

An associate professor of business-society management, Gail Whiteman is the director of the
Sustainability and Climate Research Centre at the Rotterdam School of Management of Eramus University in the Netherlands.

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