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PR: Evil Tool of Manipulation or Powerful Ally in Greening The World?

By Paul Smith

PR. Two letters that can spark a volatile emotional reaction in many people. And judging from a recent article in the Guardian detailing its psychologically manipulative roots in Sigmund Freud’s nephew, Edward Bernays, they can’t be blamed. Bernays first used public relations during World War I to sell the idea that the purpose of the war was 'bringing democracy to all of Europe.' The campaign was tremendously effective, which made Bernays realize that public opinion could be shifted by appealing to the unconscious. PR and other practices spearheaded by Bernays can be credited for creating the modern day consumer, one that is based not on practical needs but emotional gratification.

As Bernays put it,  "If we understand the mechanism and motives of the group mind, is it not possible to control and regiment the masses according to our will without their knowing about it?"

The question is, can the very same set of tools that have been used for arguably damaging behaviors and choices, be effectively used towards sustainable, healthy choices in individuals, businesses, and government? Or is it the case of the wolf guarding the hen house?

Absolutely. While it could be argued that tapping in to people’s motivations to steer them towards a desired outcome is wrong, it’s something we as individuals do on a daily basis. Why not use all the best tools to achieve a healthier planet, a happier population, and more durable businesses, able to weather, or substantially decrease the expected negative impacts of our current course of action?

Ok then, you say, how can this be done? Is it being done now? Yes. 

A perfect example has to do with water. For folks living in America, water is likely invisible. It’s just there. The exceptionally hot and rainless year Texas has had aside, we don’t, in general, give water a second thought. All the finger wagging, dramatic, statistics filled articles, blogs, tweets you like aren’t going to move the needle on people changing their behavior around water.

 What will?

Associating the wasting of water with a creepy guy. Making it embarrassing, and socially unacceptable. All things people would generally like to avoid experiencing. Wasting Water is Weird does exactly this. In various 30 second videos, people doing typical water wasting behaviors are greeted by Rip, a disturbing, oddly cheery guy who waxes poetic about the water being wasted, to the obvious discomfort of the person. The tagline is hilariously overt: Get normal by visiting WastingWaterIsWeird.com


Once there, visitors can meet Rip The Drip, the creepy mascot of wastefulness, take a humorous quiz to find out how 'weird' they are, and get tips on how to easily save water.

A growing number of agencies are developing creative behavior change campaigns, such as Colehour+Cohen’s Cube Of Food, a 477 pound spectacle at events to show much food waste is generated on average annually, accompanied by a human banana and steak, educating people on how they can choose differently.

What about consumer behavior? Can PR be used to shift purchase choices in a planet positive direction as well? Definitely, it already is. The question is, can it be done on the massive scale that the entrenched, non-sustainable options achieve? The question may shift to whether those companies can continue encouraging behavior that may deplete the very sources of it continuing to do business?

Readers: What's your (non knee jerk reaction) thoughts about PR, and it's beneficial possibilities?


Paul Smith is a sustainable business innovator, the founder of GreenSmith Consulting, and has an MBA in Sustainable Management from Presidio Graduate School in San Francisco. He creates interest in, conversations about, and business for green (and greening) companies, via social media marketing.

Image Credit: IMG-3980, AnimeNut, Flickr Creative Commons

Paul Smith is a sustainable business innovator, the founder of GreenSmith Consulting, and has an MBA in Sustainable Management from Presidio Graduate School in San Francisco. He creates interest in, conversations about, and business for green (and greening) companies, via social media marketing. || ==> For more, see GreenSmithConsulting.com

Read more stories by Paul Smith