News Analysis: Consumers catch the 'green' bug

The Stern report on the impact of climate change is likely to prove a fillip for energy-efficiency campaigners and companies with 'green' products. Robyn Lewis asks how PR practitioners are capitalising on the media interest.

The publication last week of the Stern report on the impact of climate change triggered blanket coverage from the Financial Times to The Sun, and was the latest marker in the relentless rise in prominence given by the media to environmental issues.

Reaction to the report suggests green issues can only become more important to organisations in respect of their day-to-day operations and, where applicable, new-product development.

Indeed, Ellie Springett, head of corporate and public affairs at the Energy Saving Trust (EST), believes a ‘tipping point' has been reached.

She says: ‘Energy-saving is no longer the preserve of the environment correspondent or the high-brow ­Sunday supplements. In the past year, the issue has crossed over into the mainstream news agenda.'

‘Consumer demand now there'
What does this therefore mean for companies promoting energy-efficient products? The experience of Sputnik Communications partner Penny Furniss is instructive in this regard.

Having worked briefly with solar-panel manufacturer Solarcentury in 2003, Furniss found herself overseeing a campaign for the company again this year - and says there has been a tangible difference in response.

‘Three years ago we got a lot of ­coverage from the broadsheet press,' she says. ‘At that time they were more interested in the man behind the company and the business story, although we ­also got a certain amount of interest on the back of our activities, such as putting the ­panels on the Big Brother house. But it never really translated into sales.'

But Furniss says the environment has suddenly become ‘a very different story, perhaps because the consumer demand is now there'.

The Carbon Trust this week reported that increasingly consumers want to use their purchasing power to reduce their carbon footprint, and argues that becoming a low-carbon operation can boost businesses' brands.

As if to emphasise this sea-change, two major high-street retailers - Currys and B&Q - this summer put on sale solar panels (Currys) and wind turbines (B&Q). Another indication that energy ­efficiency has crossed over to the mainstream? ‘Definitely,' says Mark Webb, PR manager (UK & Ireland Electricals) at Currys' parent company DSG International.

‘We did a lot of research before we launched our solar panels, as this was a big project. Consumers have become very concerned about doing their bit and all that was missing was a major trusted brand name in the market - that's where we came in.'

Webb argues that when promoting Currys' products, flagging up their energy-efficiency has become more important. ‘When buying white goods in ­particular, we see that customers now consider energy-efficiency and other green credentials as part of the mix.

He adds: ‘This is now moving into brown goods, too, and we are looking into launching products such as energy-efficient set-top boxes.'

Richard Robinson, senior press officer at EDF Energy, agrees that green consumerism is here to stay:  ‘These issues are definitely at the front of consumers' minds, and that has made it more important for firms to be seen to be acting - and giving consumers the opportunity to do something, too.'

How, then, should PROs get energy-­­saving products noticed by journalists? Such developments can be difficult to ‘sell in' per se because of the technology involved, argues Sara Tye, founder of Redhead PR. She goes so far as to assert: ‘It can be a bit like doing the PR for, say, a pharma firm, because the subject matter is very technical but is of interest to so wide an audience.'

Tye certainly agrees that the PR industry has caught on to energy-efficiency, and PR professionals are increasingly seeing the issue as a viable news hook.

‘Approach with proven statistics'
LG Electronics, through the launch of its energy-efficient Steam Direct washing machine, has been one of the success stories. The appliance got wide coverage from Vogue to gadgetcandy.com. Senior account manager Rachael Powlesland at Kazoo, who led the campaign, says it was crucial to make credible claims.

‘I think that you have to approach journalists with proven statistics otherwise you get lost in the crowd,' she says. ‘We demonstrated the washing machine to journalists, we were able to produce results from a Which? trial - and EST backing made all the difference as well.'

Martin Hickman, consumer affairs correspondent at The Independent, says: ‘I've noticed an increase in
the number of press releases I get ­surrounding this issue. Energy-efficiency has shot right up the news ­agenda recently - partly, I imagine, ­because consumers are becoming more concerned about rising fuel ­prices.'

But he adds: ‘Although financial concerns are a big part of the mix, I believe there's a genuine concern from consumers, and from us in the media as well, about what we can all do. This is a progression from the growth in ethical consumption and ­organic and fair-trade products.'

Although energy-efficiency is more newsworthy than ever, PROs  will need to work harder to make their campaigns stand out.

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