PR beyond COP26 – less greenwashing and more consciousness-raising

Marketing and PR is, at its most basic, a link between an organisation and the public. Whether a private business or a government department, the PR team shapes the information that fills almost every corner of our lives; ultimately, this means we hold ever-more power in an increasingly connected, digital world. Our content, in whatever format it comes in, aims to influence people to do the right thing, to purchase the right stuff, to follow the right instruction, or generally to just be informed.

Content holds power, and with power, as the cliché goes, comes responsibility. Yet it also goes both ways, and as organisations try to hold the attention of and influence the decisions of their target market, they too are influenced – and they change; slowly, but surely.

PR is therefore an enabler of compromise; the tool used to create a middle-ground between the wishes and ideals of Joe Public and the company trying to sell him a phone clearly too large to comfortably use. A business will try to meet the consumer in this middle ground, showing that they are listening to consumer feedback – either through rhetoric, or ideally, significant, substantial change.

Society is changing

Climate change and ecological disaster is an imminent threat to our planet and everyone on it. Not a refreshing thought, and probably not even the first time you have heard such sentiment today, however a fact, nonetheless. COP26, most would argue, was not the solution humanity needs. It was a mixed bunch – an opulent selection of both dismal failures and joyful successes, yet it was certainly progress, to at least some degree. It marked yet-another turning point in society’s seemingly infinite-point-turn as we try and switch course. However, many would argue that we are still sitting in the back seat with white knuckles, heading far-too quickly into impending doom

Again, a glass half-empty statement, but for a change, here is a half-full one: most of society has woken up to the imminent threat of climate change. In January 2021, the United Nations Development Programme reported results of the largest-ever climate survey, and 64% of respondents (1.2 million people) in over 50 countries considered climate change an emergency.

This decade is the only chance we have left to keep climate change to non-catastrophic levels, and more people are waking up to that fact every minute. This means that yesterday was about the last chance for your brand to succeed without rapidly starting to shift its image to a greener and more sustainable one.

Where does PR come in?

Good PR should be a meeting point between shifting societal sentiments and a business’s product or organisation’s goals. In this respect, it is fairly limited by the client as to what content it can create. However, now more than ever, the PR industry and everyone in it has a responsibility to help shift the conversation to a greener, more sustainable one.

Of course, you can’t change your client’s carbon footprint, but for every piece of content created that discusses climate change and its impact, you engage people in that conversation. With any luck, and with the right content, you help further embed how much of an important issue it is. The more people that care, the more businesses, organisations, industries and governments care – because ultimately, it will become a key part of influencing that person.

However, people working in PR and marketing also have another duty, and that is to try, as best as they can and within reason, to discourage greenwashing. Content creates a conversation, conversation creates a compromise, and companies try and make their image fit the ideals of the other person in that conversation. This can lead to greenwashing as a company’s shiny, new environmentally-friendly image overtakes the true substance of these credentials in a bid to look like they are compromising more than they really are. Therefore, although we must encourage this content, good PR must only enter these conversations if a client’s compromise with the public is real – and not just a marketing ploy.

Environmentally-conscious is no longer just an option or a buzzword for a particularly progressive PR agency; it is a must, a priority, and ultimately, a responsibility for us all.

(This post first appeared on the PRCA blog here).