Where have all the environmental stories gone?
Where have all the environmental stories gone?
Environmental issues have been on the national agenda since the
By the 1980s they had exploded onto the national scene. And by that
time, with constant clashes between environmental groups and big
business, the environmental PR pro had become a staple for both
Advocates set out to raise public awareness and create environmental
standards for industry. Corporations, often unprepared for the new
scrutiny of their policies, relied on crisis management. The press
printed story after story on the conflicts.
Since then, environmental advocacy PR has changed as much as corporate
environmental PR. Statistics are unavailable, but both sides agree that
national coverage has declined since the early 1990s. The New York Times
and the Washington Post currently have no environmental reporters in DC,
and morning shows mention environmental issues in health updates instead
of news spots.
’Journalists often see the topic as overdone,’ says Vicki Paris, media
manager for the Center for Marine Conservation (CMC), Washington,
’Environmental issues don’t always have the same immediacy they once
A major reason for this decline in coverage has been the twin successes
of industry and environmental groups. Companies have become proactive
for example, by funding environmental initiatives and by combatting what
they view as ’junk science.’ Environmental groups have succeeded in
raising awareness about issues and getting laws passed. They are now
focused on keeping that legislation, which comes up for review with
Their issues have otherwise become regional. Even urban sprawl
(spreading of businesses and populations from the cities to the
suburbs), which Vice President Gore recently announced would be a
centerpiece of his presidential campaign, is a local issue.
Cleaner air, cleaner water and recycling have all, to some extent, been
addressed, leaving few immediate issues beyond, perhaps, global warming
(see sidebar). A good example is the plastics industry. The battle
between environmentalists and plastics companies raged in the mid-1980s.
Environmental advocates startled the public with images of the garbage
barge, the bird with the plastic soda can ring around its neck and
non-biodegradable plastics sitting in landfills.
With environmentalists pushing for legislation to limit the use of
plastics and control their disposal, manufacturers came together to
protect their interests. The Arlington, VA-based American Plastics
Council (APC) was founded in 1988, backed by 26 major plastics makers,
’Plastic manufacturers were engineers interested in creating new
products and new business. They hadn’t been interested in explaining
what they were doing,’ says Rob Krebs, the trade group’s director of
state and local communication.
’Fifteen years ago, companies didn’t understand their need for
environmental communications,’ agrees David Kalson of Ruder-Finn. They
were often unprepared for environmental crisis management and unfamiliar
with their own issues.
As a result, the industry spent much of the 1980s defending itself
against environmentalist efforts.
In the case of the plastics industry, advocates succeeded in raising
public awareness of recyclable waste. Legislation resulted and recycling
is a major part of the disposal process in every state. The plastics
manufacturers, however, succeeded in establishing themselves as
The industry has promoted this image by investing more than dollars 1
billion in recycling since 1990. The APC offers information on recycling
and conservation through its web site.
The biggest change in the corporate approach is the focus on giving -
companies are donating money to environmental groups and funding
environmental initiatives to save or improve their reputation.
One company taking that approach is Exxon. The energy giant has used
corporate giving as one of several ways to rebuild its reputation after
the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill. The corporation, like many others at
the time, had already established environmental PR strategies and was
prepared for crisis management. Exxon responded to the crisis
immediately with spokespeople, full-page apologetic ads in 150
newspapers nationwide and claims offices all along the coast.
Exxon paid dollars 300 million in damages, dollars 2.5 billion for
clean-up and donated dollars 1 billion for conservation. But crisis
management could not erase the images of dead wildlife from the public’s
mind. ’We recognize that it will take a lot of time to rebuild our
reputation and our efforts are long-term,’ says Exxon spokesperson Tom
Cirigliano. In fact, Exxon has won more than 10 US awards this year from
governmental, environmental and industry entities for its safety and
environmental efforts, even though it rarely publicizes those efforts.
Instead, the company publishes a yearly environmental and safety report
for constituents that is available on its web site.
But corporate giving is one of the most effective ways to gain positive
publicity on the environmental front. Exxon currently donates dollars 5
million to environmental projects in the US each year. In 1995 the
company created the Tiger Project, which donates dollars 9 million over
eight years toward saving the tiger, Exxon’s symbol, from extinction.
The result has been some positive press and a 20% sales increase in
gasoline, indicating a steady growth in customers.
Another important corporate tactic has been to quell rumors based on
so-called junk science. For example, the golf industry was unprepared
for a 1994 report stating that golf course employees had a higher death
rate due to cancer than the average population, the possible result of
pesticides used on the grass. Coverage of the issue was nationwide and
communities voiced concerns over chemicals running off into their water
supplies. ’The research did not take into account heredity and other
factors,’ says Jeff Bollig, director of communications for the Golf
Course Superintendents Association of America.
Studies have since shown that properly managed golf courses do not have
run-off. When Bollig has presented journalists with his side of the
issue, stories are often pulled. ’We aren’t able to get positive press
on this issue, but we have been able to play a role in the debate by
providing scientific research that refutes environmentalist claims,’
While emotional appeal has unquestionably worked very well for
environmental advocates, many acknowledge that claims must be more
fact-based. ’Sometimes we are not seen favorably by environmentalists
because we base our work on well-researched information,’ says Paris of
the CMC. The Nature Conservancy bases land acquisition on research and
its success is in part due to this policy.
As for environmentalist groups, in addition to focusing on their web
sites as a communication tool (just as everyone else is), they are also
beginning to focus on the local scene, where they can reach audiences
based on issues that directly impact their communities. The Nature
Conservancy has had a regional focus since the 1970s and other groups
’In rural areas we have to educate communities on conservation and let
them know that we aren’t outsiders trying to take over their land,’ says
Jim Petterson, director of public affairs. Environmental groups gain
credibility by using local representation for their regional campaigns
and gain recognition because of the remaining interest in local
The Nature Conservancy’s PR efforts are also directed at corporations
and local businesses. The organization focuses on preservation, not
advocacy, so it is in the rare position of having credibility in both
industry and community circles. The Nature Conservancy also benefits
from corporate giving policies.
Apathy as awareness
Environmental advocates face another challenge: raising awareness in an
already aware society. ’The public often assumes that once Congress
passes a law the issue is closed,’ says Paris. However, the Endangered
Species Act, the Clean Air Act and other protective measures face
congressional approval periodically. Environmental advocates must
generate interest in issues that the public and the media view as old,
and they don’t always succeed. Congress recently gutted legislation on
coastal zone management despite the grassroots and media efforts of
groups including the CMC.
Industry has invested heavily in lobbying, and environmental advocates
are responding en masse. ’Environmentalists are faced with defending
legislation instead of spending resources on new programs,’ says Chris
DeCardy, executive director of Washington, DC-based Environmental Media
Services. Groups are joining together in order to gain good PR and
recognition in Congress for their concerns. The 1998 Agenda for Oceans
was created by CMC and 130 other organizations. The initiative resulted
in Vice President Gore’s first blueprint for comprehensive federal ocean
management, which was unveiled this fall.
Gore’s commitment to environmental issues such as global warming are the
exceptions to the lagging national coverage. Gore chose urban sprawl as
his environmental target and environmental advocates are preparing to
ride the tide of his publicity. The Sierra Club, which has long
addressed the issue, named ’Stop Sprawl’ as one of its four priority
campaigns in 1999. Sprawl has become a visible issue in part because of
its local focus.
Forget the preaching
Environmental advocates have been criticized for relying on negative
approaches for getting press rather than positioning themselves as
bringing positive results. The current trend accentuates the positive.
For example, environmental advocates first used the car as the symbol of
rapid urban growth. But Americans like their cars. So Sierra Club
devised solutions for urban sprawl that save taxpayer dollars, prevent
floods and provide residents with environmentally sound travel options.
Commuter trains, walking and biking options are presented as positive
alternatives to cars, not replacements. ’Environmentalists are starting
to speak to people based on their current interests and needs - not on
where they should be,’ says DeCardy.
Perhaps the most astounding development has been that environmental
advocates and their corporate PR counterparts are beginning to work
together on projects.
Deen+Black Environmental Communications (DBEC) has conducted a public
outreach program on behalf of the Water Forum, a collaborative effort
between traditionally opposing interests in the Sacramento region to
conserve the American River. The forum includes 46 stakeholder
organizations with representation from local government, business,
agriculture, water suppliers and environmentalists. But not everyone was
convinced that the program would work. ’Not only was the public
skeptical, so were many group members,’ says Janet Barbieri, VP at DBEC.
’Environmental groups have a history of winning through litigation, not
Although hired by the local government, DBEC’s focus was on creating a
positive image for the forum and translating the lingo into layperson’s
terms. ’We worked with the group to create a language that made very
technical ideas accessible for both the public and our group’s
constituents,’ says Barbieri. The result was positive press in the local
papers, public support and an agreement currently pending government
The conflicts between different environmental interests are certain to
remain but with the high payoff of tangible solutions, coordinated
efforts may be the next wave of environmental PR.
THE HOT ISSUE: GLOBAL WARMING
While national media coverage of environmental issues has waned in the
1990s, global warming is the one area that seems to enjoy steady
attention - and debate.
Environmentalists first raised the issue in the late 1980s, when
computer models predicted that increased levels of ’greenhouse gases’
would warm the planet by as much as five degrees Fahrenheit in the next
An increase of even a few degrees, scientists warned, could drastically
change the planet’s air quality and agriculture.
But not everyone agrees this is so. ’The issue is not clear cut and the
media is interested in conflict,’ says Don Lipton, director of PR for
the American Farm Bureau.
Climate change has become a hot international issue. A proposed global
agreement, the Kyoto Climate Control Treaty, would require developed
countries to decrease their emission of ’greenhouse gases’ - 7% below
1990 levels by 2012 in the US.
The major environmental groups have addressed global warming through
congressional liaisons, media relations or their web sites. For example,
Greenpeace published an article on the effects of global warming on
polar bears, and the Sierra Club has numerous articles urging Congress
to enact legislation.
But many groups disagree with global warming theories. Changes in the
weather are not the same as changes in climate, which some scientific
studies show has remained nearly the same in the last 50 years. ’The
global warming theory is scientifically uncertain and we work on getting
new scientific information to congressmen, government agencies and the
public,’ says Chris Paynter, executive director of the Greening Earth
Society, a nonpartisan environmental education group.
The Global Climate Coalition, the Heartland Institute, People for the
USA, Town Hall and numerous right-of-center think tanks including the
Heritage Foundation have opposed the treaty. Agricultural interests
including the American Farm Bureau and automobile makers spent dollars
12 million in 1997 on ads that featured the economic impact of the
Industry efforts have resulted in Congress saying that federal offices
cannot spend money toward the Kyoto protocol until it actually
The US’s decision on ratifying the treaty itself is currently pending