ENVIRONMENTAL CAMPAIGNS: Genuinely green or pie in the sky?

In January two UK airlines unveiled green initiatives on subsequent days. But do such campaigns really cut any ice, asks Suzy Bashford.

Richard Branson
Richard Branson

Big airlines are going to great lengths to prove their eco-credentials. Two of the UK's biggest, British Airways and Virgin, are constantly trying to prove they are addressing the climate change issue. Which is why on 14 and 15 January, both released a ‘green' story.

Virgin rev­ealed that one of its ­Boeing 747s would conduct a test flight using biofuels; then, the next day, BA ann­ounced the ­relaunch of its carbon offsetting scheme.

WalshThe stories were handled differently, with typical fanfare surrounding Virgin's announcement, but do ‘green' campaigns actually resonate with journalists, environmental groups or even consumers? Are they likely to be dismissed as ‘greenwash'? And which one had a greater true impact?

PRWeek reviewed both campaigns and then spoke to journalists, environmentalists and travel PROs to gauge how they were received...

And did they work?
It would be foolhardy to compare each airline's approach to environmental issues based just on these campaigns. But the response does seem to show that while both were picked up by the media, the Virgin story received wider coverage.

Earlier this month, the Kaizo Advocacy Index, which measures the impact of online word of mouth, conducted a study on the airline sector. Results show Virgin Atlantic far outstripped BA, run by chief executive Willie Walsh, in terms of positive buzz, with the former attaining a positive ‘65' rating and the latter only achieving a negative ‘16'.

Here some industry exp­erts give their views on the campaigns' impact:
Fiona Harvey, environment correspondent at the Financial Times
Harvey says that the Virgin Atlantic story achieved cut-through because ‘if Virgin could run its fleet on biofuel, it would be a technical breakthrough'. However, she adds that it is not a foregone conclusion that biofuels are environmentally friendly. But the subject of biofuels has much more resonance with the media and public than carbon offsetting, argues Harvey.

Debbie Hindle, managing director, BGB
Hindle says the issue is much more complicated: ‘BA and many other airlines such as Air New Zealand and Thomsonfly have been quietly add­ressing similar issues for many years. Yet Virgin has stolen the headlines.'

James Allen, director at McCluskey International
Allen is not surprised that Virgin ‘enjoys a lot of grace with the media' because of Branson's proactive inv­olvement in eco-announcements. He adds that another reason the Virgin story struck more of a chord with the British press could be because the biofuel trial run took place in the UK.

Simon Calder, travel editor at The Independent
Even its status as a media darling does not mean Virgin is immune to att­ack. Calder is quick to point out that the damage caused by the Virgin Galactic space tourism project will vastly outweigh the benefits of the airline's innovations. ‘BA, meanwhile, is trying to do everything it can to trumpet its green credentials,' says Calder‚ ‘but this is the same airline planning incredibly energy-thirsty business-class-only flights to New York next year.'

Richard Dyer, aviation campaigner, Friends of the Earth
Environmental groups are even harder to please. Dyer says he is used to seeing a lot of ‘greenwash' from the airline industry and describes both these initiatives as ‘tiny steps'. ‘It is definitely a case of over-spinning what they are doing. The irony in what Virgin Atlantic is doing is amazing: on one hand it is producing guides for customers on how to address their carbon emissions and on the other it is pressing for new runways and aircraft.'

He does concede, however, that it is good the industry is at least looking into solutions, which is high praise from an environmentalist.

However, while Dyer and other experts are well versed in the complicated aspects of the green debate and whether certain initiatives actually help or hinder, most holidaymakers are not.
Calder feels some consumers ‘care passionately but the majority do not', so the PR value of such initiatives is ­alw­ays going to be modest. That said, the evidence is that Virgin Atlantic has improved its reputation in this area more than most.

VIRGIN ATLANTIC - running on biofuel
14 January 2008 Virgin Atlantic ­ann­ounces it will use biofuels for a test flight of one of its Boeing 747s in February. The press release describes it as part of Virgin's ‘drive to reduce its env­i­ronmental impact wherever possible' and contains the obligatory quote from Sir Richard Branson, Virgin Atlantic president.

The PR professional behind the campaign, Virgin Atlantic communications director Paul Charles, stresses that his story built on a number of key initiatives to which the airline has committed since September 2006.

He says there was a ‘huge response' to the ann­ouncement. ‘It's exciting not just for passengers but also for the media and environmental groups,' says Charles.

The story broke exclusively in The Daily Telegraph and on BBC Radio 4's Today programme. Online media published in excess of 200 articles on the subject, including on many US websites concerned with green issues. Charles appeared in broadcast interviews on BBC radio stations and BBC Breakfast.

According to the Virgin team, the vast majority of the coverage was ‘very positive'. The only thorny subject was the type of biofuel Virgin Atlantic planned to use.

BRITISH AIRWAYS - international offsetting
15 January 2008 BA relaunches its carbon offsetting scheme. Customers can offset their flight emissions by supporting a wind farm or hydroelectric plants in China and deforestation prevention in Brazil. The release quotes environment, food and rural affairs secretary Hilary Benn and BA head of corporate responsib­ility Silla Maizey.

A tactical decision was made to send out the release worldwide, according to BA head of media relations Paul Marston. Travel websites and environmental news sites ran it, and the Evening Standard wrote a feature highlighting how the scheme uses United Nations-verified reductions. The Times picked up on the strand about BA-backed research at Cambridge University.

However, Marston was realistic about the newsworthiness of the rel­ease: ‘We've had an offset scheme since 2005, so the story's value in terms of news isn't all that high,' he admits. ‘But there has been much debate about the value of offset schemes.'

He is unimpressed by the suggestion that the release was timed to hit at around the same time as Virgin Atlantic's news. ‘There's no rivalry or working together on stories,' he claims.

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