Corporate America strives for effective green PR

Executing strategic public relations programs that are designed to call attention to corporate benevolence in regards to climate change may seem like the "thing to do" this year, but be careful.

Executing strategic public relations programs that are designed to call attention to corporate benevolence in regards to climate change may seem like the “thing to do” this year, but be careful. The corporate image you are trying to improve could easily get trampled by a cynical media core looking to poke holes in the corporate global warming story. Soon, we should see a proliferation of stories in the news calling out companies that talk a good game in terms of ecological sustainability, but then fall short of their own messaging.

Case in point: Aspen Skiing Company. Who would have thought the quiet, environmentally-friendly, celebrity-loving ski resort would take center stage in a recent BusinessWeek article by essentially blowing the whistle on itself as a greenwasher?

Audin Schendler, Aspen Skiing Co.'s corporate sustainability advocate, revealed during an overly emotional interview with reporter Ben Elgin that massive investment in Renewable Energy Credit's (REC's) by Aspen failed to result in any proliferation in the building of wind farms. Nor did the purchases reap the subsequent wind energy necessary to ‘off-set' Aspen's skiing operations, as was promised in the bevy of news releases related to Aspen's REC purchases.

Where was counsel? At about the point during the interview, when Schendler had a meltdown and pulled his car over to the side of the road in order to spill his guts to Elgin, someone (a PR pro) should have been in the back seat to help get the car back on the road and to replace Auden's entrails before any serious damage was done.

The roadside drama may not have been such a bad move in the long run for Schendler and his career as a climate expert, as his peers have applauded his ability to appear both humble and honest in front of a magazine like BusinessWeek. Opportunities to be featured in this respected business magazine are far and few between for most. Maybe I'm a cynical public relations person, but it doesn't seem likely Elgin came to Auden with this story.

Whoever instigated this story is now experiencing the law of unintended consequences. By the time the issue hit the newsstands Schendler's quotes had managed to throw more than Aspen under the bus. In a move labeled heroic by some and selfish by others, Schendler basically sold out any company or organization who ever dabbled in REC's.

The Verdict: I myself am guilty of promoting REC's. A couple of years ago during a project for a client that involved skiing and then writing reviews for every single ski resort in the state of Colorado, my skiing/business partner and I began to feel guilty. Here we were, shredding the mountains and burning fossil fuels to get there, on someone else's dime.

We decided to clean up our act environmentally and in doing so, formed a partnership with an environmental organization to create SkiGreen Tags. These tags were included free with the purchase of our client's guidebook and were designed to offset carbon emissions from automobiles for up to 200 miles. It sounded like a good idea at the time and seemed an easy and cheap method for giving back to the environment, but, as we can now see, buying and selling REC's has come under fire from the media.

Green marketing campaigns are everywhere. Even PRWeek has dedicated a special section to green PR. Chances are good the topic of climate change will come up in planning this year for your company or clients.

When approaching a strategic publicity campaign related to climate change please do us all a favor and be conservative in your approach.

Reid Wegley is an independent consultant specializing in media relations analysis as it relates to social media and mainstream media.

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