Most PR firms fail to meet the needs of clients when it comes to sustainable communications.
That is according to a new report from Verdantix, a sustainable business analyst firm, which evaluated 18 firms that claim to offer expertise in sustainable communications.
The report found a majority of the agencies–11 of them–need to seriously improve their offerings. “It seems like some agencies claim a practice, but there's really not much there,” says Jim Nail, principal analyst for Verdantix.
In fact, the report singled out just two firms (OgilvyEarth and Cone) as leaders in sustainable communications. Four firms were characterized as being on the verge of leadership: Context America, Ketchum, Edelman and Cohn & Wolfe.
The evaluations are based on interviews with key agency executives, publicly available information, and off-the-record interviews with 15 clients at firms with global revenues of over $2 billion.
PR firms face numerous challenges in relation to sustainable communication—particularly around the fact sustainability is often a complex subject that requires the guidance of third-party expertise, says Nail.
“Almost every agency we talked to has some relationship with NGOs, but they aren't systematic about bringing them in. They'll say, ‘Oh, we've done some sustainability work with this client so we know what we need to know,'” he says. “I don't think that's sufficient.”
That sentiment was echoed by clients interviewed for the report, who felt big PR firms lack the required knowledge. In fact, six of the 15 firms engaged specialist CSR or sustainability consultants to provide missing expertise.
One of the few firms applauded by the report for its approach on bringing in third-party experts is OgilvyEarth, which has global sustainability advisers who help the agency develop regionally-based experts.
“We rely on our advisers to keep us honest, ensure our work is up-to-date, and to create additional contacts for us, because sustainability is highly networked,” says Seth Farbman, senior partner, worldwide managing director for OgilvyEarth. “If you don't surround yourself with people who are deeply involved in sustainability, you'll always be playing catch-up.”
The report found that PR firms also face a lack of client awareness about their sustainable communication offerings. When clients were asked to name a firm known for their sustainability work, no firm was mentioned by more than three companies. In terms of agencies that were top of mind, OgilvyEarth, Edelman, and Cone topped the list.
“That was probably the biggest disappointment for me—that our capabilities weren't more well-known,” says Dave Chapman, partner at Ketchum West who oversees the agency's sustainability practice.
He says even before receiving the report, it was an issue Ketchum was addressing. “When this report was being done, we didn't have a [Web] page that was dedicated to our sustainability point of view and capabilities, but we do now. We didn't have an Intranet site where we put a lot more information about process for our own internal sources, but we do now,” says Chapman. “We soon hope to be nipping at the heels of Ogilvy and Cone.”
The report also gave the 18 firms poor marks in terms of demonstrating the kind of transparency around sustainability reporting they espouse to clients. “I was shocked to hear they're not walking the talk,” says Nail.
Edelman was the first PR agency to issue its own CSR report, in 2005, but hasn't had one since. Chris Deli, global head of CSR and sustainability practice for Edelman, says the agency has made a financial commitment to complete its second full report later this fiscal year.
The investment into CSR reporting will help put its own policies under a microscope, as well as help inform Edelman's client work, says Deli. “We'll be looking not only at our social and environmental impact on a global level, but also what our individual offices are doing.”