If a company has a poor reputation on environmental issues and then launches a green initiative, one could understand the temptation for its PR team to shout about it. But this is not the best idea, according to Business in the Community (BITC), which has just completed a comprehensive study into cause-related marketing (CRM).
The answer is to 'shout quietly'. Its report Brand Benefits, published in November 2004, concludes: 'Charity is a sensitive subject for many consumers - they want to know that a business is helping, not just meddling. So you have to be careful about how you promote your CRM programmes - shout too loudly and you'll lose the audience.'
If a company manages to strike this delicate balance, then there's much evidence to suggest that CRM initiatives can improve a consumer's perception of a brand and sell more of its products. According to Brand Benefits there has been a significant increase in consumer awareness of CRM, with 98 per cent of UK and US consumers aware of at least one CRM programme, compared with only 88 per cent in 2000.
Research also found that half of all consumers questioned said they would feel more positively towards a company, brand, product or service in the future if it was involved in a CRM programme, an increase from 31 per cent in 2000. And 48 per cent of consumers said they had switched brands as a result of a CRM campaign.
But the proliferation of CRM has caused many journalists to question the authenticity of such moves, such as when an Observer headline last year questioned whether they marked 'a beacon of care' or 'a PR smokescreen'.
Moreover, with the environment being such an important issue, the chosen cause must be central to business.
Oil companies, for example, have generated many column inches of negative publicity after efforts to launch environmentally friendly initiatives.
Some of the campaigns were not seen as genuine by the media, and pressure groups will fuel the debate if they see environmental moves as 'hollow'.
Friends of the Earth (FOE) has reacted to Shell's current reporting of its environmental activities by publishing its own spoof version of Shell's corporate and social responsibility (CSR) report entitled 'Behind the Shine: the real impacts of Shell's work around the world'.
FOE head of the corporate accountability campaign Craig Bennett explains why: 'Shell has spent £10m on TV ads and PR to talk about how green it is. It claims it's in favour of sustainability. But shouldn't it be spending money on its ageing equipment to improve the lives of those suffering living next to their refineries?'
Elsewhere, BP attracted criticism when it launched its super-unleaded product for describing it as 'environmentally friendly'. BP's PR team quickly realised the launch would have been received more warmly by the media had it been phrased 'more environmentally friendly'. Similarly, environmental campaigners were unimpressed when BP rebranded to reveal a flower motif - yet it has barely used its 'Beyond Petroleum' strapline since this 2001 launch.
Rather than overnight makeovers, companies would do better to emphasise their long-term commitment. 'With the environment, companies should be saying "we are trying to do better",' says Lara Shannon, a CRM consultant who has advised oil companies and airlines on PR.
Shannon's advice is to stick to talking about the results of a company's involvement with a cause. She advises against courting the media because it is much more effective to let those closest to the CRM initiative - be they the local community, customers, staff or stakeholders - tell your story.
European printer and copier company Ricoh has implemented this strategy to raise awareness of its CRM drive in partnership with Future Forests.
After seeking advice on making its operations more energy efficient, it created a guide explaining how office workers could be more environmentally friendly, and distributed this to its 20,000 customers and field force.
Wide PR director Nik Pollinger oversees communications for the UK's first hazardous waste-only landfill site WasteGo. He says if a firm does not have a real desire to be honest, recovering its reputation may be a struggle.
'The onus is on the organisation to effect real and not just cosmetic change, or risk further bad publicity,' he says. 'If the company will is there, a PR professional should be able to find a way to communicate this to address the relevant community or pressure group's key concerns.'
A growing number of CRM consultants believe PR's future role is to drive home the message of individual consumer responsibility to effect environmental change. Anecdotal evidence suggests that poor publicity does not directly correlate to a drop in sales. The Stop Esso campaign, for example, did not affect the oil giant's sales according to its PR department.
Many companies are trying to be more forceful in presenting their case for what they contribute by offering consumers a way to compensate for any environmental damage they cause in using their products or services.
Crystal Holidays, for example, is working with Future Forests to give its customers 'carbon neutral' calculat-ors so they can work out how much carbon dioxide their holiday travel will contribute, and how they can recompense.
Brands that manage to link to a relevant cause, are open and honest in the way they talk about their contribution, and give consumers an easy way to participate, are well placed to enhance their environmental reputation.
PLANET ARK/THE DIRECT MARKETING ASSOCIATION
The direct marketing industry has long suffered from a poor environmental image, perceived by consumers as responsible for producing mounds of unwanted 'junk mail'. Industry body the Direct Marketing Association (DMA) UK wanted to address this via an ongoing cause-related marketing campaign to increase recycling of direct mail, publicise the services available to those who do not wish to receive direct mail, such as the Mailing Preference Service (MPS), and to improve the industry's targeting.
To achieve this, it forged a partnership with Planet Ark Environmental Foundation and ran a celebrity-fronted campaign to get the message across to consumers and government that the industry was cleaning up its act and reducing the amount of mail ending up in landfill.
While educating consumers about how to reduce waste, the PR campaign also had to convey that not all direct mail is 'junk' to enhance the marketing discipline's reputation. Leaflets distributed carried the strapline 'One man's junk is another man's treasure'.
The campaign kicked off by offering the media interviews with Planet Ark founder and tennis champion Pat Cash and celebrity Dannii Minogue.
The DMA spent £80,000 on a national consumer press advertising and online campaign to promote waste reduction and 310,000 postcard adverts were distributed in coffee shops and bars. The DMA secured preferential media deals.
In the first day following launch, the DMA's direct marketing helpline received 9,819 calls, compared with an average daily count of 500. Of these, 4,598 registered with the MPS. A total of 80,809 registrations were received in the first week. By the end of the campaign 170,000 had registered. NOP research shows that awareness of the service increased from 35 per cent to 38 per cent and extensive national and local coverage was achieved.