The number one fear that any event organizer has, outside of the venue closing down the day before a conference, is a lack of audience participation.
Thus, it was very heartening to see that, at our Target Green conference on May 10, time seemed to run out before the questions did. And, so, panelists and presenters were consumed by small crowds of attendees, who offered business cards and expressed a desire to continue the conversation another day.
There was no doubt that attendees were engaged in the issues of green, clean tech, and corporate sustainability. But rather than take the presentations and presentations as gospel, they offered tough questions, especially of Suzanne McCarron, manager of communications for ExxonMobil Corp., and afternoon keynote Paul Zeven, CEO of Philips North America.
When Zeven brought up compact fluorescent lightbulbs (CFLs), which are the darling of many people's green movement - bulbs that currently cost more, but last longer and use less energy - more than one person wondered if the mercury present in CFLs outweighed the good caused from their energy efficiency.
We expect the fourth estate to ask executives those tough questions because it's what journalists do. While there were certainly media at Target Green, a majority of attendees were, of course, PR pros. This was incredibly heartening because PR professionals should be just as inquisitive as their journalism brethren.
The most critical takeaway from the conference was that absolutely no one - neither the panelists, nor the NGOs advocating in the space - has come up with the definitive green solution. There are a lot of shades of gray that for-profit companies have to contemplate to ensure business goals are reached when green initiatives are launched.
In many respects, the rush to make companies greener has its parallels in the push to make companies more embracing of social media. Indeed, the number of green-focused confabs these days is reaching the level of social media and blogging conferences that started two years ago.
If PR pros were smart back then, they provided sage counsel to help executives understand the nuances of new media, as well as predicted where opportunities and pitfalls might lay. If PR professionals were not smart, their bosses (or clients) likely got that information elsewhere. That's a shame for the industry.
Like the case for social media, any company's green initiative will be multi-pronged, complicated, involve hand-holding, and require coalition building. Somehow it doesn't seem like those various facets could be easily elucidated in a print ad.
While companies have to back up green talk with action, they likewise can't get any business traction on the green initiative they undertake without a dedicated communications plan, one that goes beyond cover-story pitches to the environmentally obsessed media.
If the PR industry is truly committed to factoring into business decisions, it should not falter in providing a dedicated, energized, and, most important, realistic sounding board for its executives' and clients' green dreams before they become reality.