Are companies over-sanitizing their sustainability communication?

Are PR firms helping or hindering authentic communication on sustainability?

Are PR firms helping or hindering authentic communication on sustainability?

There has always been a tension between journalists and corporate PR advisers and I have certainly experienced my share of frustration over the past 30 years.

When I started out as a business and financial writer, I was able to get straight through by telephone to chief executives but over the years, the messages coming out of business have become increasingly managed and sanitised.

When it comes to sustainability, the general mantra of mainstream external advisers is to play it safe. Internal PR officers can be even more cautious.

Of course, one of the reasons they give is that they need to protect companies from accusations of greenwashing by a cynical press.

But look below the surface and what is often going on is that PR advisors are focused on protecting their jobs and clients by sticking to the script of business as usual.

Fear, of course, is a key driver of human behaviour, but it’s got to the point where, as an industry, PRs are open to the accusation that they are holding back the development of the sustainability movement.

It’s not just fear that makes PRs a block, but also ignorance. One head of a communications agency in New York told me how shocked she is by the lack of understanding in the PR industry about the sustainability challenges facing business and the opportunities that come from showing leadership in this arena.

Before I get showered with criticism, I must make the proviso that I have a lot of time for those small-scale PR agencies who specialise in sustainability and are seeking to encourage their clients to open up.

A few months ago, I gave a speech at the annual conference of the World Business Council for Sustainable Development in which I warned that a movement is not made from silence.

The reason I said this is because there are many companies that are privately taking steps to address issues ranging from climate change to resource scarcity, but most of them are not putting their heads above the parapet.

To be fair, there are some journalists and others who take pot shots at those companies that are prepared to go public on their strategies and projects, while ignoring those companies that keep a low profile.

But it’s also the case that those companies which really are trying to make a difference do often get the benefit of the doubt in the public sphere when they are coming from a place of authenticity.

The new chief sustainability officer at Mars Incorporated, Barry Parkin, echoed this view when I spoke to him last week. Mars, in years gone by, had been quiet on these issues to the point of obsessive secrecy, but Parkin says the global manufacturer of confectionery, pet food, and other food products has “learnt from positive experience that when we have been more open with our engagement, the responses have not only helped us with our thinking but have also been generally supportive.”

The danger is that by keeping quiet about what action companies are taking, to the outside world it looks like nothing much is happening. It also means that all the attention continues to be focused on the tiny cadre of business leaders who take the personal risk to speak out.

The result is that there is no peer pressure on those companies who are doing very little to take action and in the public domain, politicians and customers fail to recognise the role of the business sector in driving change.

Worse still, it becomes easy for those believers in the status quo to scythe down those few who standing up for change, if their companies suffer a short-term profits blip.

When it comes to PR interference, it is interesting to note the recent criticism voiced about the scripted nature of the launch of the B team, a global collaboration of business leaders from major corporations aimed at driving transformational change in the business sector.

Where was the passion, the authenticity and spontaneity that we should expect from CEOs of major businesses, who are at the top of their game and can genuinely make a difference through their presence? Well, the simple answer may be that while some of the leaders were happy to be more vocal, their corporate PR advisers behind the scenes throttled the idea.

I see this constantly myself. As part of my work, I chair sessions at conferences and events, including interviewing chief executives and chief sustainability officers. The standard approach of their PR advisers is to immediately go into command and control mode, wanting to know ahead of time exactly what I plan to ask so they can script the answers.

As a matter of principle, I refuse and also have a general rule that speeches are banned at any event I chair.

That’s because as soon as someone formulates the answers in advance, the message loses its power and energy, and the true meaning can get left behind.

If on the other hand, CSOs are treated like adults, rather than children, and given the chance to express themselves, they can have a significant influence.

Take Bea Perez, the CSO of Coca-Cola, who did two presentations at the recent Sustainable Brands conference in San Diego. The first one was a plenary presentation, which some delegates criticised as being overly corporate and formulaic.

The next morning, she hosted a breakfast session which was unscripted, personal and open-hearted, which drew widespread praise.

It is that passionate embrace of the issues that will help drive change, rather than simply relying on the business case for companies to act on issues ranging from climate change to resource scarcity.

PR professionals would do well to see their broader role and to recognise that while they may be operating in the background, the countless individual decisions they make can either hinder or encourage the process of transformation that we need.

This article was originally published on the Guardian website.
Jo Confino is an executive editor of the Guardian and chairman and editorial director of Guardian Sustainable Business. He also advises Guardian News & Media and Guardian Media Group on their sustainability strategies.