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The Case for Public Relations

jennifer boynton headshotWords by Jen Boynton
Leadership & Transparency

The wires have been buzzing for weeks over public relations (PR) superpower Edelman's refusal to rule out working with climate deniers. This news spread like a Yosemite wildfire.

Now, journalists love to hate publicists so the schadenfreude was predictable. The Edelman tale was made even more delicious with a bungled and complicated response which included a leaked email and an unscripted call from the company president to one of the first reporters to pick up on Edelman's unsavory client roster (ALEC, API).

But is Edelman's shakedown fair?

PR gets a bad rap from journalists because it's perceived as a game where getting a client name into a story matters more than its newsworthiness.  That means that over-zealous PR reps can sometimes come on too strong in ever-present pursuit of a mention. When it comes to stories about sustainable companies and products, that might mean a PR team promoting companies and their initiatives as sustainable when they don't really have the chops to back it up. Reams have been written about this as well: Earth Day is a favorite time for taking stock of the numerous pitches that end up in our email boxes. At best the products being offered are useful; at worst Earth Day is used as a cheap opportunity to pimp more product.

However, public relations pros have an important role in our collective efforts to improve many companies' sustainability efforts. They are the trusted advisors to the companies that employ them.  The smartest PR people know that if they're out promoting a sustainability message that doesn't stand up to close scrutiny, their clients will be accused of greenwashing. It doesn't do their clients any good to have a strong sustainability message if there is no substance beneath the surface. That's why packs of PR pros now consider it a part of their jobs to actually help their clients be more sustainable (through suggesting initiatives with impact and better reporting and communications strategies).

As trusted advisors with a deep understanding of the sustainable media landscape, these firms are in a great position to help companies actually improve their sustainability. I know from personal experience that Edelman's Business and Social Purpose practice does just that, as do many other sustainable communications and PR firms (Saatchi S, Fenton, Ogilvy Earth, Weber Shandwick and Ketchum spring to mind). Yes, Edelman certainly deserved to be called out for working with the American Petroleum Institute and ALEC. But they should also get credit for working to shift other clients to a more sustainable path. And yes, since they've committed to being a sustainable practice themselves, that means all of us in the sustainability community get to call them out when they don't live up to the standard they've set for themselves:

"At Edelman we understand the significance of the environment to our people, our clients, and the communities in which we operate. We believe that every company has a clear responsibility to do its part to help protect our shared environment and conserve our precious natural resources. We recognize that reducing our impacts across all aspects of our business helps preserve our planet for future generations. As such, Edelman ensures that our business strategy is closely aligned with our policy on the environment, with committed leadership on environmental issues."

- From the Edelman Global Environmental Policy, effective January 2012

If Edelman is going to live by its Global Environmental Policy, that probably means turning down clients who are in the business of furthering the interests of oil and gas industries.

Turn that frown upside down

Now, from great public embarrassment comes great opportunity. Edelman, masters of spin, knows this better than anyone. If they take this opportunity to fire some clients in addition to saying they won't work on climate denial, the tide of public opinion will turn back in their favor.

More importantly, the world will benefit from having one less spin-master working to obfuscate the human origins of climate change. It's not what you do, it's how your services are used that is a measure of sustainability. That's what us in the buttoned-up world of sustainability reporting call "materiality." The thing that makes you sustainable is not how many carbon offsets you bought, or how many volunteer hours your team conducted, but what your company actually did. In the world of services like PR (or legal, accounting, banking), that means, who are you clients: Did you help good firms get better, or did you help bad firms live to fight another day?

Edelman has some great companies on their roster. They've helped some of their clients become more sustainable, and they've certainly helped with damage control when things go wrong at savory and unsavory firms alike. By looking deeply at how they use their powers of persuasion and committing to use them for good, to help good companies get better, Edelman actually has an opportunity to be a leader in sustainability.

Do you think they'll take it?

Full disclosure: PR firms including Edelman have recommended TriplePundit sponsorship to their clients.

Image credit: Skilledup

Jen Boynton headshotJen Boynton

Jen Boynton is the former Editor-in-Chief of TriplePundit. She has an MBA in Sustainable Management from the Presidio Graduate School and has helped organizations including SAP, PwC and Fair Trade USA with their sustainability communications messaging. She is based in San Diego, California. When she's not at work, she volunteers as a CASA (court appointed special advocate) for children in the foster care system. She enjoys losing fights with toddlers and eating toast scraps. She lives with her family in sunny San Diego.

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