Few Stars, Many Laggards Among Communications Firms

As companies increasingly devote resources toward becoming more sustainable, it falls on their internal marketing teams and/or external communications firms to communicate these intentions to customers. And this is where things too often fall apart, through branding that turns into greenwashing, or through poorly-deployed marketing plans that fail to hit their high notes. And so it’s wise to rank communication firms on their skills in ushering sustainability plans from the boardroom to the newsroom. That’s what the analysts at British research firm Verdantix have done in a report out today called Green Quadrant: Sustainable Communications Agencies US 2010.

After surveying 18 firms over four months, Verdantix found that two specialist marketing communications firms—Cone and OgilvyEarth—lead the US market for sustainability communications agencies. They topped the list by having “clear sustainability vision” and “processes and methodologies specifically designed to address sustainability communications challenges,” according to Verdandix. However, what’s most striking, and worrisome, about the report is this gem: “All agencies flunk the test on their own sustainable business strategy.” Turns out, most communications firms aren’t walking the talk when it comes to sustainability. They lack reporting and communications plans that are based on transparency. Enter wisecracks, such as, “well, they are marketing firms, after all, and marketers aren’t known for transparency.”

Still, it’s a disappointing finding. And what’s worse, Verdantix found that overall, there’s a “yawning gap between the rapidly evolving needs of Fortune 500 firms to communicate sustainability performance to business and consumer audiences and the lacklustre ideas, strategies and frameworks offered by most of the agencies in the study.”

Jim Nail, the principal analyst at Verdantix and author of the report, said in a statement that, “The shift from old style, tactical CSR reporting to the new wave of strategic, sustainability communications has caught agencies off guard. PR firms such as APCO Worldwide, Edelman and Hill & Knowlton have the skill set to help clients avoid greenwash but, according to our detailed analysis, only Cone and OgilvyEarth offer breakthrough sustainability communications strategies, frameworks and advice in tune with the needs of leading firms.”

There is a glimmer of good news in the report. Cohn & Wolfe, Context America, Edelman and Ketchum are all close followers, with Context America and Ketchum showing high marks for momentum, based on factors such as “mindshare” and the amount of staff and resources devoted to sustainability reporting.

For the report, Verdantix used 41 criteria to compare and contrast the offerings of the various communications firms. Assessment criteria include sustainability communications frameworks, defining the sustainability-brand connection and communicating to employees, customers, investors and suppliers.

Freelance writer Mary Catherine O'Connor finds that a growing number of companies are proving the ways that they can make good financially, socially and environmentally (as the triple bottom line theory suggests).With that in mind, she contributes to Triple Pundit, as well as to Earth2Tech and other pubs focused on sustainability. She also writes The Good Route, an Outside Magazine blog that addresses the intersection of sustainability and the active/outdoor life.To find out more, or to reach her, go to www.mcoconnor.com.

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