Why has environmental PR faded? - From nuclear energy crises to the Exxon Valdez oil spill, environmental issues used to constantly grab the media headlines. Now all - or practically all - is quiet on the environmental front. Have PR professionals been th

Where have all the environmental stories gone?

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


Twin successes

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

mundane regularity.

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,

including DuPont.

’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

environmentally aware.

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,’

says Bollig.

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

are following.

’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.


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

100 years.

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

congressional review.

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