The Environment, Global Warming and the PR Industry (Warning: Over 60 seconds)

I know not if’t be true Yet I, for mere suspicion in that kind, Will do as if for surety
Iago from Shakespeare’s Othello

Last week’s UK PR Week carried a story about PR agencies not having given thought to their position on global warming. “It is staggering that the PR industry has failed to grasp the climate-change nettle in a “walk the walk” way,” said Sue Welland, founder of The CarbonNeutral Company and then named the few firms that were doing anything about it (and by inference shamed the rest of us). No-one here remembers being called, but we too would only have been in the “working on it” camp.

I blogged about this a few weeks ago after the Labour party conference where many of the speakers including Bob Geldof, Bill Clinton, Ken Livingstone and most ministers had referenced the issue, even if their speech was mainly about something else. My take-out had been that in communication terms the environment and global warming had reached tipping point in that, for all companies now (rather than just those who had an obvious and direct affect) the issues were the new mandatories in any corporate reputation programme. I likened it to “quality” which used to be was something that used to differentiate every company a firm, but has now become a given. I then glibly announced we at Edelman would set our own house in order as well as helping clients do the same.

Easier said than done.

Two week’s ago the Stern report came out and was heralded by most commentators including the sober FT as a kind of ‘missing link’ in the argument because it financially quantified the impact of doing something now to combat global warming compared to doing something later. However, the European edition of the Wall Street Journal was scathing about the report and also about the science behind the claims about global warming. A quick bit of research later and I found more of the same. Not all of this is American by the way.

And this was puzzling because I’m no scientist and I haven’t got the time to work out which are the valid studies and who are the credible sources. But I did have the benefit of a meeting with the leaders of Edelman’s key European markets coming up and so we invited Julia Hailes, author of the Green Consumer to explain to us what was what. And she did, and what’s known as a lively debate ensued very quickly. And given our backgrounds (the usual mixture of media and liberal arts educations) it was colourful though less based on good science but more on what we believed the environment and global warming meant to consumers and to our client’s stakeholders and about the motives of the scientists and NGOs involved.

Most were strongly in the camp of the believers (that global warming is here, is driven by human activities, and poses a significant threat), but no-one (with the possible exception of UK CEO Stuart Smith who has a PHD in atmospheric chemistry) could honestly say that their belief was based on a rational weighing of the data available. We all had increasing aesthetic revulsion towards waste and conspicuous consumption and we were all reacting more like consumers driven by the constant media coverage, documentaries and, of course, the impact of An Inconvenient Truth (but check out A Really Inconvenient Truth).

And that’s fine if you are a consumer. But as consultants to clients and as leaders of our own businesses is it enough? It is after all expensive and ‘inconvenient’ to go carbon-neutral and minimise environmental impact.

For clients we could at this time, in all good faith, advise them that in many markets in Europe, the case for global warming is believed by enough stakeholders, investors, employees and media for it to be a new business reality. The idea of global warming can now harm or help your business so you better do something about it.

Problem solved then right?

Before you answer, an example: what if you were of the mind of Top Gear and Sunday Times writer and presenter Jeremy Clarkson and the leader writer of the Wall Street Journal; that carbon taxes and a lot of the environmental measures companies, individuals and especially governments might take are not only wasteful, but that they harm the world’s economy, blunt it’s drive for innovation and divert resources and energy from more important issues like poverty, preventable disease and HIV (Kyoto by the back door is socialism by the back door and will starve those in poverty and leave some sick uncured).

If you believed this could you still take your company (or a client’s) down the time-consuming and expensive route of minimising environmental impact and even to carbon neutrality?

I don’t think you could. If you felt that the ‘cures’ were a more real and present danger to the planet than global warming, how do you sit quiet in a meeting that is planning to take a firm and the world the other way?

On certain issues then (smoking perhaps is the most obvious) we have to get of the fence and make a judgement call that is about the ‘greater good’. Smoking is bad for the greater good and we, like many agencies, haven’t worked on tobacco products for years now, even though it’s not illegal and we could have done some interesting work. Easy enough that one.

But global warming isn’t as clear cut as smoking, at least not yet. And on global warming there is an articulate school of thought that says the ‘cure’ is a bad thing. And on that you must make a call.

And of course there is a third way. It’s a perfectly legitimate viewpoint for a lay person to come to the conclusion that neither global warming nor its cures will kill us and that therefore I need to take the best available route for me, my firm or my client (right now that would jumping on the ‘band-wagon’ and heading for carbon-neutrality for just about any company).

And I think that’s where a lot of the industry is and I think that’s why agencies have not done as much as Sue Welland would want. She’s a believer and most agencies aren’t there yet.

At Edelman in Europe we are about there now and we’ll look to develop an offering for clients and will begin to change the way our businesses operate and bring down our carbon impact. But if we have people who believe the contrary view, they will not be obliged to work on global warming related campaigns.

More to come on this one I feel.

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