Authenticity vital to green coverage

Getting sustainability issues on the press' radar requires an honest, well-informed message.

Getting sustainability issues on the press' radar requires an honest, well-informed message.

Many media outlets are increasing coverage of green/sustainability issues, thus providing plenty of opportunity for companies that are demonstrating true commitment and measurable goals. And while more reporters are covering green topics, many of them are new to the sector, which means informed PR pros can be particularly valuable resources in driving coverage.

Annie Howell, SVP of communications and public affairs at Discovery's Planet Green, says authenticity and accessibility resonate with media and readers, and that credibility is vital.

"Knowing your stuff and having information to back it up is key [in finding] new angles and fresh perspective," she adds. "[Present] ideas that can empower and persuade change."

Blue Practice partner Tim Gnatek notes, "Stories covered more often now are [stories] of change - especially about traditional companies making change." He cites Coca-Cola's recent announcement that it wants to try and recycle all plastic bottles used in the US. "[That's] huge," he says. "It's an admission that it's important and that they're working on it."

Plenty looks for consumer impact stories, as it seeks to help readers know what companies and products to support.

"Companies that have brought sustainability practices to the core of their operations are the most interesting," says editor-in-chief Mark Spellun. "The sector doesn't really matter; it's always an interesting story. [Some] companies are doing interesting things, but aren't sure how to express it. They might be doing one thing out of 10 well, but don't want to be called out for the other nine. As large corporations become more sustainable, [it's a challenge to] integrate this into their message and show it's an overall vision."

David Roberts, a writer for environmental magazine, says he has seen too many press releases that use the phrase "green is the new black." He thinks most journalists who cover the space are "very cynical," and insincerity and trying to be "cute or clever" just doesn't work. "Be authentic," he says. "That will get through. I'm looking for genuine, authentic, and long-term commitment."

It's important to avoid greenwashing at all costs. "In representing this space you open yourself up to more criticism," Gnatek says. "There's [an expectation of] some kind of higher purpose that you're aspiring to beyond the demand of the marketplace."

He advises companies to set green goals and communicate them. "If you make a stance, provide a road map and be accountable along the way," he says. "The process of setting goals makes you accountable and does provide some sort of bellwether."

Spellun cites GE's Ecomagination campaign as "much stronger than a one-off deal" because it's about "setting standards for the entire company," and it can be "verified, measured, and judged."

The community aspect of green issues appeals to local press and can ultimately help garner broader coverage. SolarCity, one of Blue Practice's clients, is trying to turn cities solar by setting a goal to make a commitment at the community level.

"There has been emphasis on local media because that's where this is happening," says Gnatek. "It builds more legitimacy. It's a community story more than [one] of promotion."

Planet Green is working on a series about Greensburg, KS, tentatively titled Eco Town. "It's not just pitching, 'Please cover this show,'" stresses Howell. "It's looking at what's going on in this town - [the] people, building, design, and science of it. [We'll] look at it from all perspectives."

Community efforts can yield great stories, but astroturfing (manufacturing a grassroots movement) will backfire with the media.

"SolarCity identified community leaders, approached them with the idea, and [gave] them tools to become advocates in the community, so as much as possible it's originating in the community and not being forced on them," Gnatek notes.

Companies that get to know thought leaders and build relationships also gain media credibility. "A lot of influential nonprofits [also] play a role in how companies are evaluated in their green efforts," he adds. "Seeking partnerships and alliances can [prevent greenwashing and astroturfing]."

PR pros who are immersed in green and sustainability issues are positioned to guide dialogue and drive the movement.

"Changing light bulbs and turning off faucets is very important, but we can't stop there," Howell says. "I think that's where the media feels the responsibility. Our job is to help figure out what resonates."

Technique tips

Show commitment, expertise

Pitch stories about change and community stories

Highlight alliances

Greenwash or astroturf

Pitch one-off efforts

Be inauthentic or overly cute and clever

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