Inside the silent revolution - Angela Barter, WPRF2014 speaker, looks at authenticity and Communication with Conscience
What does it mean to you to participate as a speaker at the 2014 World Public Relations Forum?
Participating as a speaker at the World Public Relations Forum is an honour and allows me to share the years of research, interviews and experience as a Sustainable Communication Strategist in the field of ‘green’ public relations. I am excited about this year’s theme ‘Communication with a conscience’, as I believe this is a crucial aspect of the future of both sustainable communication and the profession as a whole.
In your opinion, what are the most important benefits of participating to this Forum?
The World Public Relations Forum is the ideal platform to share and discuss the issues, challenges and successes the industry faces and celebrates. The forum allows like-minded individuals to learn from each other, to engage and collaborate, and to form new partnerships, which enhances professionalism and raises standards in public relations globally. With regard to the future of the planet, cooperation, stakeholder engagement and participation are key.
What does ‘Communication with Conscience’ mean to you?
The Oxford Dictionary defines ‘conscience’ as ‘A person’s moral sense of right and wrong, viewed as acting as a guide to one’s behaviour’. Public relations practitioners not only have the power to shift the ‘conscience’ or attitudes of people through communication, they also have the opportunity to guide companies in terms of crystallising their environmental intent, providing expertise in analysing and interpreting attitudes and behaviours, and communicating environmental initiatives to all stakeholders in a clear, understandable, authentic and honest way. Ensuring that the company’s ethics and culture are consistent with the ‘green’ claims made is the very foundation of a rational and ethical communication campaign.
What are the most important challenges that communication professionals will have to face in the next years?
The first apparent challenge is a silent revolution, aptly termed “green consumerism” which continues to gain momentum rapidly. It has given rise to a new breed of consumer “who is mindful of environment-related issues and obligations, and is supportive of environmental causes, to the extent of switching allegiance from one product or supplier to another even if it entails higher cost” (Business Dictionary). This creates unique challenges, as well as opportunities, for public relations practitioners, as companies are increasingly looking for practitioners to promote the environmental attributes and ‘green’ claims of their products and services, to capture the attention and loyalty of this new consumer market. Unfortunately, this has also given rise to the unethical practice of ‘greenwashing’, which misleads consumers about the environmental practices of a company or the environmental benefits of a product or service through incorrect claims, factual errors, misrepresentation or omission of information. Inaccurate ‘green’ claims or simply glossing a ‘green sheen’ over advertising and PR communication creates a significant risk of negative publicity, irreparable brand damage and loss of trust when this ‘greenwashing’ is exposed. Rising above the ‘green’ noise poses a new challenge – and a significant opportunity – to communication professionals.
A second, and even more difficult challenge public relations practitioners will face, is the many boardroom ethical dilemmas that will arise as environmental issues gain prominence and reveals the divergent levels of importance and values different people assign to the environment. A practitioner that is well versed in public relations, stakeholder engagement, environmental issues and ethics can become a valuable contributor in the decision-making process, changing attitudes and, ultimately, behaviour, not just among external stakeholders, but within the organisation as well.
What are the most important strategic points of Sustainable Communication and Green Public Relations?
The number one rule for sustainable communication is authentic, genuine and honest communication. Solid, verifiable evidence that the company’s ethics and culture are consistent with the “green” claims made is the very foundation of a “green” communications campaign. In fact, the only way to build confidence, trust and loyalty among a new breed of consumers is to ensure that what a company says is reflected in genuine, measurable “green” initiatives, extending throughout all operations of the business. The company has to “walk the talk”, keep its promises and ensure every environmental claim is true – and that it benefits both consumers and the environment.
Furthermore, it remains crucial that all communication to stakeholders, including sustainability reports, press releases, marketing and advertising is ethical, sincere, honest and accurate. Errors or omissions could alter the assessments and decisions of stakeholders, while misrepresentation or inaccurate communication places the reputation of the company at stake. Sustainability issues differ across industry sectors and across individual companies and, as such, sustainability messages to various stakeholders require a different approach. A one-size-fits-all communication approach will prove ineffective. What is required is a stakeholder engagement plan and communication strategy incorporating key sustainability messages tailored for each target audience, including investors, employees, suppliers and consumers. An authentic, holistic and well-considered sustainable communication and stakeholder engagement plan provides a solid foundation for informed decision-making and ensures stakeholders feel heard and valued, building trust and loyalty to a brand.