Clean tech becoming next buzz practice

Growing environmental concerns and VC funding make clean tech a feel-good business opportunity. Access Communications CEO and president Susan Butenhoff calls it "the perfect storm."

Growing environmental concerns and VC funding make clean tech a feel-good business opportunity. Access Communications CEO and president Susan Butenhoff calls it "the perfect storm."

The price of oil has hit $70 a barrel. The American public is concerned with the war in Iraq. Al Gore made a movie about global warming. People are no longer apologetic about their concern for the environment. Consumers have become "conspicuous conservationists," Butenhoff says.

And so, too, have many PR agencies, in terms of the clients they serve. A look back on the past 12 months reveals several agencies opening new clean-technology or broader, green-technology practices.

Loosely defined, clean technology involves wind power, solar power, hydropower, clean fuels, electric motors, and the like. The concept is also used to describe the technology needed to make electricity and make structures without damaging the environment in the process. Research firm Clean Edge predicts the clean energy sector will grow into a $100 billion market by 2014.

In late October, both Text 100 and Trevelino/Keller Communications Group announced the formation of clean-tech divisions. San Mateo, CA-based A&R Edelman opened its clean-tech practice in March, with such clients as California Clean Tech Open. Access and PR and public affairs shop Kearns & West will be launching their own practices soon.

But some have been in the space for several years. Melody Haller is the president of Antenna Group's clean-tech PR practice, which she started way back in 2002 and now has 13 clients.

"I often call it 'new industrial technologies' because there is so much overlap between clean tech, nanotech, and advanced materials," Haller says.

Even those without dedicated practices are attuned to the issue. Wayne Barringer, MD of Porter Novelli's Seattle office, says he believes clean tech is hot in PR right now for a number of reasons. Because VCs are dedicating more funding to companies in clean tech than ever before, there is a significant business opportunity.

"And as opportunistic American business people, PR firms are hot on the trail," he says.

But more than that, Barringer says it is shaping up to be the next nonprofit, healthcare, or CSR-type buzz practice. In addition, like CSR, it gives both client- and agency-side PR practitioners a difference-making focus to feel good about.

"I suspect clean tech is fulfilling those dreams for lots of folks," Barringer says.

Sharif Ebrahim, Kearns & West principal, says the sector is taking off because it's addressing powerful societal and policy goals.

"There is a powerful combination of venture funding, government funding, [and] utility funding available, and more and more interest from Wall Street," Ebrahim says.

Not only that, but these solutions address 'must have' issues, he adds.

"Online pet food is a 'nice-to-have' solution because driving to the store is a decent alternative. The alternatives to cleaner technology and energy efficiency, let's face it, aren't so great," Ebrahim says.

Working with renewable energy clients and environmental technology requires a different skill set than just straight technology, some PR pros say.

"This is an emerging market, and there you can't lump [tech and clean-tech clients] all the same," says Kimberly Kupiecki, SVP at A&R Edelman. "There is more of an education emphasis in our work."

And although there are a lot of firms opening clean-tech divisions now, Mark Hampton, CEO of Blanc & Otus, says agencies must do more than just talk to earn the respect of the clients.

"It will be interesting to see how it plays out," Hampton says. "For this market, credentials are important. They want to work with a firm that's not just dialing for dollars. I think it will be interesting to see [long term] who is successful and who isn't. It goes beyond just pitching a few stories and getting some clips. You have to help these clients build a community and build an ecosystem. We see that as a large part of our agreement for them. It's more than just media."

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