Going green not easy, but worth it

Kermit the Frog's famous lament is, "It's not easy being green." PR strategists equally contemplate the difficulties in positioning clients as pro-environment.

Kermit the Frog's famous lament is, "It's not easy being green." PR strategists equally contemplate the difficulties in positioning clients as pro-environment.

From the messages to the politics to the printing paper, many land mines lie beneath the road to being green.

Investor demands for adherence to socially responsible investing principles, mounting evidence of global climate change, the high costs of fossil fuels - these events are driving management to see the shareholder benefits.

Michael Dell's new program, "Plant a Tree for Me," illustrates the change. He is asking Dell customers for donations to plant trees that would absorb roughly the same amount of carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas, that's generated in producing electricity to run a computer over three years.

All efforts must start with getting the message right. This means a politically smart point that doesn't trigger "Wake Up Wal-Mart" attacks exposing your client's hypocrisy, mistruths, and tin ear in misunderstanding enviro-politics. It also necessitates crafting a message that "sticks" - difficult amid the growth of do-it-yourself media, but critical as traditional pipelines become less effective.

Your message should be backed up with a commitment to being green and not motivated solely as a PR ploy. Management may assume that a good message is all that is needed. But the public tends to be skeptical. Hence, speak with an authentic voice.

One of the toughest things to understand about being green is that there are trade-offs. You must decide which choices offer the greatest good. Reducing your "carbon footprint" may help decrease the harmful gases changing the atmosphere, but the clean-energy technologies you choose may have negative consequences, albeit of a different magnitude and import.

Remember the outrage in Massachusetts over construction of the nation's first oceangoing wind "farm" in Nantucket Sound? In those battles, environmentalists showed us the value of "framing," damning these projects as "killing fields." Once an issue is framed, we, more likely than not, are stuck playing defense.

As with any family, there are rebellious youths, internecine squabbles, and political intrigue among environmental activists. One group's support doesn't ensure that of the others. Tend to this community very gently. Unfurl a wide tent, and be as inclusive as you can. Build long-term relationships rather than make expedient, quid pro quo deals.
Having worked out the politics, sharpened your message, and settled on your tactics, you need to be mindful about how the little things can undermine your efforts.

One problem area: paper. Your choice of paper can have a significant impact on climate change and the loss of the earth's biodiversity. Don't buy paper unless you know where it comes from and if the forests that produced the pulp have been properly managed. Look for the Sustainable Forestry Initiative program or Forest Stewardship Council bugs, which are guarantees of sound forest practices.

If it's so easy to get it wrong, then why bother?

As Kermit realizes, being green ultimately is a good thing. For "green's the color of spring," it can be "big like an ocean, or important like a mountain, or tall like a tree."

Your challenge, then, is to be mindful that there are as many complexities in environmental PR initiatives as there are varieties of the color green. Whether you choose verdigris or lime or chartreuse, do your homework.

James David Spellman runs his own strategic communications firm in Washington, DC, and is an adjunct professor at George Washington University.

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