Public Relations

Ethics Education Webinar

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With all the claims of “fake news” and “alternative facts” professors need to find ways to dialogue about ethics with our students. Are you interested in ways to introduce ethics into your classroom? I’ll be moderating a PRSA webinar featuring three Page Legacy scholars on this topic. Join us on September 14. See the link below.

http://apps.prsa.org/Learning/Calendar/display/8842/Incorporating_Ethics_in_the_Public_Relations_Class#.WaXMwaaotok

Incorporating Ethics in the Public Relations Classroom: Tips, tools and resources for communications educators

Featuring: Carolyn Kim, Associate Professor at Biola University, Dean Mundy, Assistant Professor at the University of Oregon, and Lucinda Austin, Assistant Professor at UNC Chapel Hill.

How patriotism just might change environmental behaviors

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This week on Triple Pundit, Suzanne Shelton (@sheltongrp), raises an interesting question, Could patriotism motivate Americans to use less energy? This resonated with me, because it’s related to an important discussion I had with my co-editor Lee Ahern when we were developing our book on environmental communication a few years ago. How do you convince a person to adopt environmentally-friendly behaviors? Tom Crompton of World Wildlife Fund and Common Cause Foundation wrote a white paper stating that a marketing approach (selling people on incremental changes over time) doesn’t work, because as soon as the behavior becomes difficult or requires a person to make significant sacrifices, he or she will likely abandon it. Instead, Crompton recommends tying environmental behavior to values that motivate, such as patriotism. Patriotism is used to sell all kinds of products (cars, guns, burgers), and it has been a strong motivator for many other behaviors (voting, military service, etc) as well. But, is it possible to convince the public that environmentally-friendly behaviors are patriotic? Shelton makes these three relevant points in her post.

  • First, climate change is becoming a security threat to our military. Her blog post shares a panel discussion by military leaders that explain why this is the case. The changing weather patterns are creating unrest in regions around the world and putting our military directly in harms way. Read the blog post for a full explanation.
  • Second, patriotism plays well with groups who are not typically receptive to climate change arguments, so this could be a path to persuasion for some of these groups.
  • And, third, people who feel the greatest threat or danger will be the most likely to take action. In this case, military families who can see the practical implications for making sustainable changes will be most likely to support the change, reduced energy use. And, they can be a voice to appeal to the broader population.

If you’re interested in the discussion about marketing vs. values appeals for environmental behavior change, check out our book. It’s a few years old, but the chapter authors make some compelling arguments for how to motivate audiences.

 

G4 Sustainability Reporting: Why it’s great and how communication can help

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First, let me admit that I’m somewhat new to the nuts and bolts of sustainability reporting. I have been researching sustainability communication and CSR reporting, but last summer I spent a couple of days at Edelman in Chicago at training for GRI reporting using the G4 guidelines. At first, I worried that the training would be too dense, and I might not find much value in it. But, I was pleasantly surprised to find that the information was extremely interesting and relevant for communication research.

Here’s what I love about sustainability reporting with G4. It truly is a way to help corporations manage processes toward a sustainable economy. Unlike earlier iterations of the GRI report, G4 strips out all the fluff and really forces companies to focus on the most critical aspects of sustainability that will bring needed change.

Here are some great examples:
1. Outputs are divided into three categories – economic, environment, and social – and that means companies need to report in all areas. And, that provides great stories for companies to tell.

2. More is not better. Report quality is not judged on quantity of information, so companies are encouraged to be concise but thorough. Enter communication experts who do this for a living. Providing transparent and useful information (in a concise form) is an excellent way to build credibility and communicate effectively.

3. Each item needs to be measured using an approved method of collection. And, results need to be contextualized. As our trainer said, companies need to explain if their improvements are due to a “happy accident” or to management processes that lead to planned improvement. And, on the flip side, missing a goal should be contextualized because sometimes unexpected circumstances cause companies to miss their objectives, but the cause is reasonable. This is an ethical approach to reporting and builds credibility with audiences.

4. Awards are no longer a required disclosure. That means that companies do not need to disclose them (but they are free to do it). Why? Because, bottom line, awards to do not contribute to making a company more sustainable. The criteria for some awards is not known, so it’s hard to decide if the award is an indication of an important contribution. So, the decision was made not to require them. This decision makes an interesting statement about value of awards and how some may not be rigorous and really have important meaning.

5. Ethics & Integrity disclosures are required (the Arthur W. Page Center for Integrity in Public Communication is thrilled).

6. Stakeholder engagement is new to G4 – this means more communication and more promotion. This is my favorite change because it brings sustainability reporting squarely into the communication arena, and opens up a fascinating opportunity to study stakeholder engagement in sustainability.

7. And, here is the most courageous change  – in order for a company to be “in accordance” at the comprehensive level (which is the most thorough level), it must disclose the salary of its highest paid employee in a country and how that compares to the average salary in the company in that country (not including the highest paid employee). One of the goals of GRI is to fight poverty, and frankly, this is one of the most practical ways to identify income inequity.

My final takeaway is that companies that adhere to the G4 standards, and specifically those who reach the comprehensive level of certification, will have an amazing story to tell and will contribute to their reputation in a meaningful way.

Telling a company’s sustainability story

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I just read a great article on Triple Pundit about using narratives to tell a company’s sustainability story. Nicole Skibola from Centurion Consulting offers some excellent suggestions, but my favorite is to think about your audiences as actual people, not as categories. Don’t try to craft communication for “customers” or “law-makers” but rather think of specific individuals whom you are trying to reach. That will help you create a more interesting and compelling narrative for your audiences. Yes, it’s a lesson from communication 101, but sometimes we get lost when communicating about complex subjects, like sustainability. It’s good to remember that at the other end of the message is the receiver, a real person.

Read the full article here to learn about the three step process to developing an effective narrative for sustainability:

http://www.triplepundit.com/2014/09/tell-companys-sustainability-story/

Bortree named Director of Page Center for Integrity in Public Communication

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I’m a bit late with this announcement, but here it is. From the News site at Penn State University:

Denise Sevick Bortree, whose research focuses on corporate social responsibility and sustainability communication, has been selected as director of the Arthur W. Page Center for Integrity in Public Communication at Penn State.

Her appointment is effective Aug. 1, 2014. She succeeds Marie Hardin, recently named as dean of the College of Communications at Penn State. Hardin will retain her position as chair of the Page Center’s advisory board.

“As a senior research fellow with the Page Center, Dr. Bortree brings to her new position a deep involvement with and understanding of its research mission,” said Hardin. “A first-rate scholar, Dr. Bortree is well-positioned to lead the Page Center, which has become a leading research unit focusing on ethics in public communication.”

Founded in 2004, the Page Center is dedicated to the study and development of ethics and responsibility in corporate communication and other forms of public communication. The center has awarded grants totaling more than half a million dollars to researchers from all over the world. Some of the topics they have addressed include corporate social responsibility, environmental communication, company codes of ethics, the principles of PR professionals, apologies by business firms, and ethical issues in journalism, crisis communications and social media.

Bortree is well known for her scholarship on corporate social responsibility, nonprofit organization communications, social media and sustainability issues. She has co-edited two books: “Ethical Practice of Social Media in Public Relations” (2014) and “Talking Green, Exploring Contemporary Issues in Environmental Communications” (2012). She has authored more than 25 peer-reviewed journal articles.

In 2010, she earned the Deans’ Excellence Award for Research and Creative Accomplishments from the College of Communications. In 2013, she was selected to participate in the Scripps-Howard Leadership Academy. She is the incoming chair of the Public Relations Division of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication (AEJMC), a leading international organization.

An associate professor in the Department of Advertising/Public Relations at Penn State, Bortree brought to academe more than 10 years of practical experience, including positions as a communications manager, public relations manager and marketing manager for a number of organizations. She earned two master’s degrees, in mass communications and educational psychology, from the University of Florida, and her doctorate from Florida in mass communications. Her undergraduate degree is from Geneva College.

Bortree is enthusiastic about her new leadership position.

“I am honored to be taking on this role at the Page Center,” she said. “Over the past decade, the center has distinguished itself as a leader in professionally focused research on ethics in public communication, and I look forward to continuing to build its engagement with communications professionals and academics.”

The Arthur W. Page Center was created 10 years ago by three senior executives: Edward M. Block, retired senior vice president for AT&T; the late Lawrence G. Foster, retired corporate vice president for Johnson & Johnson; and the late John A. Koten, retired senior vice president for Ameritech. Foster made a significant leadership gift to establish the Page Center and served for years as chair of its advisory board before his death in 2013. The Johnson family foundations and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation also have given substantial support. Other contributions have come from former colleagues of Robert Wood Johnson and from the AT&T Foundation on behalf of Arthur W. Page.

The center is named for the man who is considered the world’s pioneer in corporate public relations. Arthur W. Page joined AT&T as a vice president in 1924 and became widely known for setting high standards for ethical communication. The legacy of Robert Wood Johnson also is a vital part of the Page Center. Like Page, Johnson was a strong and visible advocate of responsible corporate behavior.

Recipients of Page Center grants are known as Page/Johnson Legacy Scholars. In addition to research, the center features an oral history collection of prominent people from the corporate communications and journalism fields.

Sustainability and CSR research at the International Public Relations Research Conference

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One of the most popular conferences for academics in public relations is the International Public Relations Research Conference (IPRRC) which is held every March in Miami. This year I noticed a long list of studies on corporate social responsibility (CSR) and sustainability communication. That was a pleasant surprise, given the Page Center’s recent efforts to fund high-quality research in this area.

Three of the studies were funded by a Page Legacy grant. Melissa Dodd and Dustin Supa looked at corporate social advocacy, how a company’s stand on a social issue impacts consumer’s purchase intentions. They have been working on this topic for a while, and this is another nice addition to their stream of research. Georgiana Grigore and Tom Watson presented a paper on internal communication about CSR, and how skepticism plays a role in the advocacy. We were pleased to fund this project, too, because the topic of CSR skepticism needs more attention. Melanie Formentin (a grad student here at Penn State) and I wrote the third funded paper, which reported the results of a content analysis on CSR and sustainability report videos that companies have posted.

Below is a more information about the three papers.

Title: A “Corporate Social Advocacy” Approach to Gun Control, Firearms Violence: Attitudes Underlying Consumer Purchase Intention and Policy Recommendations

Authors: Melissa D. Dodd (University of Central Florida), Dustin W. Supa (Boston University)

Abstract: This research uses the theory of planned behavior to expand upon past research by the study’s authors that has attempted to identify the relationship between organizational stances on social political-issues (gay marriage, healthcare reform, and emergency contraception) and consumer purchase intentions (termed, “corporate social advocacy”). The current research seeks to further this agenda by the social-political issue of gun control.

Title: Employees as CSR advocates: The role of skepticism

Authors: Georgiana Grigore, Anastasios Theofilou, Tom Watson (Bournemouth University, UK)

Abstract: This research offers a framework to public relations and corporate communications practitioners, which enhances the understanding of the use and value of internal CSR communication strategies and practices.

Title: Stakeholder Engagement on YouTube: Corporate Use of Video to Introduce and Explain CSR and Sustainability Reports

Authors: Denise Bortree and Melanie Formentin (Penn State University)

I would like to share a few other notable papers that I believe make an important contribution to the field of CSR and sustainability communication. One interesting paper covered the overlap between CSR and public relations. An important contribution of this paper is how CSR has been integrated into business strategy and goals.

Title: Untangling the Relationship Between Public Relations and Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR): A Best Practices Perspective of PR Goals and the Use of CSR Initiatives

Author: Holley Reeves (University of Georgia)

Abstract: Eleven in-depth interviews explore the relationship between PR goals and CSR programs. Findings indicate that CSR initiatives primarily serve the community and support long-term business goals. PR interests are secondary.

I first met with the author of another paper, Matthew VanDyke, a few years ago, and I knew he would make an important contribution to our knowledge of environmental communication. His paper at the conference, with fellow grad student Zijian Gong, proposed an interesting study to test perceptions of green messages during crisis.

Title: Does Green Strategic Communication Help During Environmental Crises?: The Influence of Personal Involvement and Crisis History on Company Evaluations

Authors: Matthew S. VanDyke, Zijian Gong (Texas Tech University)

Abstract: This experiment tested the influence of a company’s environmental crisis history and individuals’ level of crisis involvement on perceptions of a company’s pro-environmental messages. Participants evaluated messages using continuous response and self-report measures. Results inform theory and practice of the roles crisis history and personal involvement play in subsequent evaluations.

Two studies at the conference confirmed what public relations professionals have long known. CSR communication has an impact on media coverage, but certain types of CSR initiatives are more likely to garner coverage. Using the agenda setting framework, both studies had somewhat similar findings.

Title: Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) Communication: Intermedia Agenda Setting Effects between News Releases and Press Coverage

Author: Laishan Tam (Purdue University)

Abstract: Based on intermedia agenda setting theory, this study examines the extent to which CSR-related news releases published by electricity providers in Hong Kong influences press coverage about CSR. News releases on CSR topics which are more relevant to the core operations of the corporation and have higher impact on society are found to be more likely to be reported in the press.

Title: Agenda-building in corporate social responsibility: Analyzing influence in corporate crisis

Authors: Young Eun Park, Sung-Un Yang (Indiana University)

Abstract: Following agenda-building theory, content analysis of CSR news releases and CSR media coverage involving two time frames (before vs. after crisis) will be conducted. This study demonstrates (1) positive associations between salience of issues in CSR information subsidies and media coverage and (2) influences of information subsidies on media coverage.

Research on social media seems to dominate at IPRRC, with many academics and professionals searching for better ways to quantify the impact of social media engagement. One study of Twitter posts looked specifically at CSR communication.

Title: CSR dialogue on social media platforms: An analysis of CSR tweets

Authors: Lina M. Gomez (Universidad del Este, Puerto Rico), Lucely Vargas-Preciado (Johaness Kepler University of Linz, Austria), Ramiro Cea-Moure (Universidad de Burgos, Spain), Ismail Adelopo (University of the West of England, UK)

Abstract: This paper aims to discover who the most important “CSR actors” are and what they are discussing about CSR on twitter. Our research conducted a content analysis of 1623 public tweets from different twitter users. Cross collaboration between actors is needed in order to enrich the practice of CSR communication.

At the awards ceremony on the last day of the conference, Executive Director of the conference, Don Stacks asked members of the audience to raise a hand if they had travelled internationally for the conference. About a third of the room indicated that they had. And, the impact of international researchers is evident in the conference schedule this year. Here are three examples of good projects that look at CSR in an international context.

Title: Green Social Movements and Government Public Relations Efforts in Turkey

Authors: Gülşah Aydın, Duygu Aydın Aslaner (Yeditepe University, Turkey)

Abstract: This study discusses Green Social Movements in Turkey and PR efforts developed by the government. It is scrutinized in the scope of media relations, reputation and crisis management.

Title: Corporate Social Responsibility: Perceptions and practices among SMEs in Colombia

Authors: Nathaly Aya Pastrana (Adinas Group S.A.S, Columbia), Krishnamurthy Sriramesh (Purdue University)

Abstract: This study sought to understand the perceptions and practices of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) among a sample of Colombian SMEs. The data were collected using a self-administered online questionnaire (54 corporations), and from interviews with five opinion leaders and two representatives of SMEs permitted to assess the activities, motivations, stakeholders, decision-making processes, communication processes, resource allocation, evaluation, and the benefits of CSR among Colombian SMEs. Additionally, the study presents a brief analysis linking the findings to the specific socio-cultural context of the country.

Title: Corporate Responsibility in Post-Communist Eastern Europe

Author: Sorin Nastasia (Southern Illinois University Edwardsville)

Abstract: This paper discusses corporate responsibility in Eastern Europe, taking a critical public relations approach to examining cases from Poland, Hungary, Romania, and Bulgaria. Data was collected through archival research. The study discusses the opportunities and challenges for corporations to position themselves as accountable and responsible social actors in Eastern Europe.

In addition to international context, the studies of CSR and sustainability looked at environmental issues that hit close to home, affecting the quality of life in local communities. Here are two examples.

Title: Strategic Ambiguity in Crisis: Fracking Information Designed to Educate or Deceive?

Authors: Kristi S. Gilmore, Sun Young Lee (Texas Tech University)

Abstract: This textual analysis of company websites examines the use of strategic ambiguity in the crisis communication efforts surrounding one of the petroleum industry’s most recent controversial activities: hydraulic fracturing or “fracking.”

Title: Improving Grease Disposal among Latino Populations in North Carolina: A Public Relations Case Study

Authors: Alan R. Freitag, Robin Rothberg, Sayde Brais (University of North Carolina at Charlotte)

Abstract: This project aimed at addressing the problem of improper disposal of fats, oils and grease (FOG) by population segments in North Carolina. This project aims to gauge levels of issue awareness among the target populations, identify constraints preventing desirable behavioral changes, then craft and implement a strategic communication plan to encourage proper FOG disposal.

And, I will wrap up this blog post on a topic particularly close to my heart, nonprofit communication. Christine Willingham at Florida State University took a look at the controversy between Susan G. Komen and Planned Parenthood and discussed the role of brand values as they match with cultural values. (Note: See my earlier blog post on this case study http://blogs.comm.psu.edu/thepagecenter/?p=325)

Title: Susan G. Komen and Planned Parenthood: The Cost of NOT Understanding the Connections Between Cultural Values and Brand Values for Nonprofit Organizations

Author: Christine Willingham (Florida State University)

Abstract: The SGK—Planned Parenthood case demonstrates the necessity for organizations to understand the connections between cultural values and their brand values. Further, it is important for public relations practitioners to understand how stakeholders are conceptualizing the brand; particularly a nonprofit brand that encompasses a vision of an idealistic future.

The strong presence of CSR and Sustainability research at the conference indicates to me that the public relations field sees increasing value in knowledge about effective communication strategies in this area. The Page Center is about to launch a new Sustainability Communication Initiative to fund professionally-focused research in this area and offer useful research-based insights for practice. More information to come on this new initiative.

Developing and Measuring Social Media for Nonprofits

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Monday, Oct. 28, 10–11:15 a.m.

Room: Franklin 7 (Hotel Floor 4)

Association/Nonprofit Section

Summary

Katie Paine, SNCR Fellow, CEO, Paine Publishing; Richard D. Waters, Ph.D., assistant professor, School of Management, University of San Francisco; and Denise Bortree, associate professor, communications, Pennsylvania State University, will speak on current trends developing in social media communication and how to measure its impact on nonprofit organizations. They’ll delve into the use of major social media outlets and offer strategies for maximizing the effectiveness of communication and relationships through social media.

Moderator

Denise Bortree, associate professor, Penn State University

Photo of Denise Bortree Bortree is a Page Legacy Scholar and Senior  Research Fellow for the Arthur W. Page Center. Before entering academia,  she worked for more than 10 years in the private sector in positions  including public relations manager and marketing manager.


Panelists

Katie Delahaye Paine, Fellow PRSA, SNCR; Member, IPR Measurement Commission, CEO, Paine Publishing

Photo of Katie Delahaye Paine, Fellow PRSA, SNCR; Member, IPR Measurement Commission Paine, Fellow PRSA, SNCR and member of IPR Measurement Commission, is the author of three books: “Measuring the Networked Nonprofit,” “Measure What Matters,” and “Measuring Public Relationships.” She writes the popular KDPaine’s Measurement Blog, and is the publisher of “The Measurement Standard,” the industry’s oldest publication dedicated entirely to measuring results.


Richard D. Waters, Ph.D., assistant professor, University of San Francisco

Photo of Richard D. Waters, Ph.D. In addition to his role at the University of San Francisco, Dr. Waters is the associate editor of Case Studies in Strategic Communication, and he has published more than 60 research articles. He also consults for Fortune 500 and Philanthropy 400 organizations.

 

 

Find out more about the conference here: http://www.prsa.org/Conferences/InternationalConference/index.html#.Ulce1n_D_3g

Don’t be gloomy: A marketing strategy for sustainable products

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According to a recent article in Triple Pundit, a popular panel session at SXSWeco offered a fresh perspective on sustainability marketing.

Want to sell more of your sustainable products? Time to drop the green finger wagging and start peddling a more joyous life

What motivates consumers of green products? “Empowerment, efficacy, and fun.” One of the panelists shared his observations on trends over the past few years.

…[trends have changed from] pre-recession, where the focus was abstractly on “the environment,” to the recession years, where the focus was on saving money, to the emerging post-recession context, where the focus is shifting towards the health and wellness of the individual consumer. In this new highly-personal context, empowerment is in and guilt is out.

If this is true (and I would love to see the underlying research), then we are seeing a shift in values around sustainability. Rather than being motivated by guilt or fear, consumers of sustainable products are driven by a desire for enjoyment and empowerment. Frankly, it sounds like future sustainability campaigns may be a lot more fun to create!

Read the article here: http://www.triplepundit.com/2013/10/sell-sustainable-product-stop-being-gloomy/

Sustainability and carbon emissions

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As I mentioned in my earlier blog post, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) issued a report titled “Climate Change 2013: The Physical Science Basis” that removed any doubt about the role of humans in global warming. Although there has been some skepticism, the scientific community appears to accept the findings which raise questions about energy and environmental policy.

I can’t help but wonder what the role of sustainability and sustainability communication should be in companies’ responses to the recent news. Clearly, corporations need to continue to reduce emissions and begin to adopt more clean energy and renewable sources of energy. But, I would go one step further. As part of their social and environmental responsibility, corporations need to consider promoting sustainable behaviors to their audiences. Some of my prior research suggests that corporation spend a lot of time talking about their environmental good works but very little time trying to encourage the public to think critically about environmental issues or take action toward issues. Yet, engaging the public in solving environmental problems will lead corporations to greater respect and trust by the public.

Carbon Emission: Where do we go from here?

According to the EPA and IPPC, the energy supply contributes more greenhouse gas emissions than any other source.  However, the competition in the energy business is heating up as new energy sources are becoming more readily available – particularly natural gas from shale drilling. And, investment in emission reduction and new technology development does not seem realistic without incentives that balance the competitive landscape and reward environmentally responsible behaviors.

The findings from the climate change report are grim, and experts are calling for action. According to a column in the New York Times by Eduardo Porter “William Nordhaus of Yale, to cite one estimate, wrote recently that allowing uncontrolled carbon emissions would raise the world’s temperature 3.4 degrees Celsius (6.1 degrees Fahrenheit) above that of the preindustrial era by the end of the century and cost the world a fairly modest 2.8 percent of economic output.” Something really does need to be done.

Two popular options for motivating emission reductions are a carbon tax and a cap-and-trade system. Both have benefits and drawback, as we have seen in other countries and regions. For example, according to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory’s report Carbon Taxes: A Review of Experience and Policy Design Considerations, countries such as Finland, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, and some Canadian provinces have experienced success with a carbon tax. They have seen marked decreases in carbon emissions, and the tax funds have been redirected to environmental projects, and in some cases to reduce income taxes and other taxes. But, carbon taxes raise a number of concerns. First, while a carbon tax sets a known cost per pound of emissions, it does not inherently limit emissions. It may increase costs to businesses but not achieve the overarching goal – reduce emissions. Recently, the Australian government announced its intentions to repeal a carbon tax in the near future.

The other common approach is cap-and-trade, which seemed to be welcomed policy in 2009 when the American Clean Energy and Security Act was approved by the US House of Representatives. However, later, it was defeated in the Senate. In many ways the bill was similar to the European Union Emissions Trading System, which has had the greatest volume of CO2 allowance trades of any carbon market program. Despite a few bumps in the road, it has been successful in reducing carbon emissions. The advantage of a carbon market is the ability to set an emissions threshold and permitting allowances to be traded on the market, setting a reasonable price. As the economy improves, prices rise, and should the economy fall, prices follow.

But, as Newell, Pizer, and Raimi write in the journal article Carbon Markets 15 Years after Kyoto: Lessons Learned, New Challenges, “A key question for – and sometimes criticism of – current market-based policies concerns the degree to which they encourage long-term investment in new technologies rather than solely short-term fuel-switching and energy conservation” (p. 132).  Will cap and trade programs lead to the long-term goal of creating technologies that reduce emissions and/or use renewable energies?

To add a dose of reality, the current political environment in the US would hardly allow for either policy. Congress can’t even get a budget passed. That is why we see regulations on emissions coming from the Whitehouse and EPA in conjunction with programs that will fund research into new technologies that will help industry reach the regulation requirements. It’s not a perfect solution, but considering the current state of our political system, it may be the best solution to keep forward momentum.

U.N. Climate Change Report Released: Corporations Should Take Notice

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The UN released a report on climate change today, and it points to human behaviors as a primary driver of global warming. Here is a quote from the article:

Even if we end carbon dioxide emissions today, effects could linger for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. And certain changes may already be irreversible.

via U.N. climate change report points blame at humans – CNN.com.

Scary words. If I worked in a corporate communications or sustainability department today, I would be planning ways to promote my responsible environmental behaviors in the coming weeks and months. This kind of news has a way to coming back around to those who hold the most responsibility. People want someone to blame, and research shows that the greatest amount of emissions come from energy and industry, as I mentioned in my earlier post.

Many large corporations take environmental sustainability seriously, and they work to keep their emissions low. However, 50 companies are responsible for 73% of greenhouse gases, according to the CDP. They need to take notice and step up their efforts to minimize environmental impacts. Otherwise, the fear that this news creates will be redirected as anger toward the companies that have had the largest role in the problem.

And what about policy? This is just the kind of news that creates more public will for energy and environmental policy. It comes on the heels of recent proposals by the EPA and the Whitehouse that will limit emissions from power plants and fund research into new clean technologies. Now would be a good time to propose more policies that move us toward renewable resources.

You can read the report at climatechange2013.org.

Energy Policy and the Corporation

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According to the US Environmental Protection Agency and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, globally, the energy supply contributes 26% of greenhouse gas emissions measured in the environment. This does not include transportation (13%), industry (19%) or residential and commercial buildings (8%), among other industrial outputs. The emissions come primarily from coal, natural gas and oil use for heating (most often in the form of electricity). As reflected in transportation, this does not include fossil fuels used for air, road, and rail travel. Although coal and oil may be plentiful, the cost to the environment is significant.

In industry, it appears that some companies are not taking energy use and emissions seriously, or at least the disclosure of emissions (see: Amazon, Apple Among Companies Ignoring SEC Climate Change Risk Disclosure Rules). This is a problem, particularly considering recent findings by the Carbon Disclosure Project that 10% of world’s largest companies (Global 500) produce 73% of greenhouse gases.

So, how do we create stable energy policy that encourages more clean energy use and moves us away from high impact emissions? We saw two steps in the right direction this week in the form of energy and environmental policy coming from the White House. First, Obama announced higher standard for carbon emissions from power plants for the first time in the US. This ground breaking legislation would require the coal industry to lower its emissions to meet that of other fossil fuels, such as gas. Critics point out that the technology to reduce emissions to this level does not exist.  And, that makes Obama’s second proposal that much more appealing to the coal industry. The President announced an extension of a Department of Energy program that will fund loans for technological developments that reduce carbon emissions of fossil fuels, including coal and natural gas. The coal industry now has the resources to develop technology that will reach the standards set by the administration. This was a smart move that drives interest in both pieces of legislation. Access to loans will be more valuable with the looming standards for carbon emission. And, the higher standards are more readily accepted with access to loans to help develop technology that will clean up fossil fuel emissions.

However, cleaner fossil fuels only offer a short term answer. The greater question is how do we encourage transition to renewable energy? As Ann Carlson and Robert Fri suggest in their article Designing a Durable Energy Policy, goals of clean energy policy play outside of the marketplace – in other words, people don’t want to pay more (or be taxed) to have more secure energy or cleaner energy.  That makes the transition to a new energy source difficult to sustain.

There is no easy answer, but I believe businesses have a role to play in bring about the transition. As an important constituency of energy policy, their stance can influence legislators and the public. By adopting renewable sources of energy and demanding reasonably priced clean energy sources, they will affect the marketplace for these products. Sustainability has become a business strategy and part of the culture for many companies, and that can have a broad impact on energy use and emissions. Although some companies do not appear to have made the necessary commitment to move the business world forward, others have, and I think that is another step in the right direction.

50 Companies Responsible for 73% of Greenhouse Gases, according to CDP

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The Carbon Disclosure Project released its  CDP Global 500 Climate Change Report 2013 today. The report includes the Climate Performance Leadership Index (CPLI) which features companies with strong climate strategies. In addition, the report found that 50 of the Global 500 companies are responsible for 73% of greenhouse gas emissions. This is astounding. According to the report, carbon emissions from these companies have risen year over year. You can find more information in the report or at the links below.

More  info:

10% of world’s largest companies (Global 500) produce 73% of greenhouse gases 

Results Released Today by 2 Ratings Heavyweights – Blog | SustainAbility.

International Public Relations Research Conference

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A few weeks ago, I attended the International Public Relations Research Conference (IPRRC) in Miami. The conference was small, but it attracted big names in the field. Check out this excellent summary of research presentations written by Tom Watson at Bournemouth University. Next year, the conference will be held March 5-8 (2014) in Miami.

Thon provides prime model for impact of volunteerism

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On Sunday, the Centre Daily Times published an article that I wrote about volunteerism and the model that Penn State’s THON event offers. The online version doesn’t include the wonderful pictures from the event that the CDT used in the print version, but the text is all here. I appreciate the opportunity to share a bit of my research.

Dennis Treacy from Smithfield Foods to speak on Sustainability at Penn State University

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Next week the Arthur W. Page Center has the honor of hosting Dennis Treacy, Executive Vice President and Chief Sustainability Officer for Smithfield Foods. Dennis has agreed to speak to students, faculty and the public about “Smithfield’s Sustainability Journey.” Dennis has been a tireless advocate for sustainability within Smithfield, and we are so pleased to have him talk with the Penn State campus community about his work.

If you wish to join us, see the details below:

Who: Dennis Treacy, Executive Vice President and Chief Sustainability Officer, Smithfield Foods.

When: Monday, March 18, 6 pm

Where: Foster Auditorium in the Paterno Library

What: Treacy will give a talk on “Smithfield’s Sustainability Journey.”

For more information, contact me at dsb177@psu.edu.

TreacyFlierUpdate (4)

Why aren’t companies talking about climate change strategies?

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I enjoyed reading this TriplePundit article earlier in the week, Levi’s Quietly  Announces Climate Change Strategy. It touches on a trend that I think a lot of us are observing: companies are actively addressing sustainability issues but they’re not really talking about it publicly. This is particularly true for climate change strategies. And as Mike Bellamente notes:

The unfortunate reality is that climate change remains such a high voltage issue for people that addressing it as a corporation can no longer be effectively marketed as a benefit to consumers….People don’t want to be saddled with the world’s problems when they are out buying jeans. In fact, consumer brands are more likely to risk alienating politically conservative consumers (53% of whom deny global warming) than they stand to gain in boosting sales for demonstrating leadership in corporate responsibility.

At the same time, companies are aware of the risks of climate change, and they are actively addressing them in their business strategies. As one sustainability communicator told me recently, until there is pressure from financial analysts to report on these issues, companies won’t take the risk.

This creates an interesting challenge for public relations departments that want to tell their companies’ stories, but part of the story brings too great a risk. Does the fact that companies are making a priority of sustainability and climate changes strategies obligate them to talk about it? One could argue that by not talking about it, companies are missing out on the opportunity to educate the public on the importance of these issues. And, that could explain, in part, why there is such a disconnect between business behavior and consumer behavior around global environmental issues.

The biggest challenge, of course, is the economics of sustainability. As long as green products cost more than other products, they will be considered a luxury. I appreciate a recent blog post by Robert Axelrod at Fleishman Hillard which suggests that green products be discounted. While this may raise questions among consumers about the quality of green products, it will certainly drive purchasing behavior.

Nonprofit crisis management: What we learned from Susan G. Komen Foundation

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I want to diverge a bit from sustainability to talk about an important case in nonprofit public relations. This morning I talked with a New York Times reporter about the Susan G. Komen crisis that unfolded earlier this year. As I was preparing for the interview, I was piecing together the timeline since the initial announcement by Planned Parenthood that Komen would no longer fund its cancer screening services. It is fascinating to me that after the crisis, corporate partners continued to support the organization, even increase their association with the organization, clearly indicating that Komen is a good cause marketing partner. But, the advocates and fundraisers at the local affiliates are seeing a significant drop off in funding for their Race for the Cure, a primary source of income for the local affiliates.

So, why the disparity? Why are corporate partners still onboard with the organization but local supporter are not?

Here’s what I think. No one anticipated that Komen would make a politically motivated decision with its funding (let’s set aside the debate over whether it was truly politically motivated, and let perception be reality). So it caught the public, supporters, and partners by surprise. When Komen reversed its decision, the public moved on pretty quickly, but local fundraisers, advocates, and supporters felt betrayed by the decision. Pink still sells products, because the investment is low. I can buy a pink product for the same price as another, so why not let some of the money go to a good cause. But, raising money for a charity or making a donation requires a higher level of involvement. Supporters of the local affiliates have raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for the nonprofit. Some feel that Komen’s decision revealed a political motivation, and they feel betrayed.

Add to that the unique circumstances in this crisis. The issue that Komen engaged was outside of its mission, and for some women, that issue is more critical than breast cancer research. So, while some past supporters may continue to feel good about giving to Komen to support cancer research, others feel good about NOT giving to Komen and thereby taking  a pro-choice stand. Komen has created a dilemma for some groups, forcing them to choose between two important issues. Fighting breast cancer is a cause that brings people together, but abortion is a cause that polarizes them, and Komen introduced a source of conflict into its organization when it made the ill-fated decision.

So where did Komen go wrong in its public relations? Here are five key missteps.

  • First, decision makers didn’t vet the idea broadly. Had they consulted with a PR agency (I believe Ogilvy was on retainer but was not told about the decision before it became public) they would have been advised to take a different approach to the issue. I’ve read that the board did ask senior management to project consequences that may result from the decision. Based on their research, management recommended Komen continue funding Planned Parenthood, but the board disregarded the recommendation (the issues with nonprofit boards is a topic all its own).
  • Second, they didn’t own the story when it came out. They let Planned Parenthood own it.
  • Third, they didn’t respond with full disclosure. If they had revealed their dilemma with pro-life supporters, the public may have been more receptive (it would have been most effective to talk about the dilemma publicly before the decision was made).
  • Fourth, they didn’t engage with the media and publics quickly. Instead employees issued generic statements and deleted posts from the Facebook page.
  • And, finally, they didn’t clean house quickly. The significant personnel changes that we’ve seen over the past few months should have happened right away in February.

What can we learn from the case? Nonprofits (or any organizations) must be transparent in their communication about decisions, especially highly contentious ones. The board should have known that the public would view the Planned Parenthood decision through a political lens. Either they missed it, or they misjudged it by thinking the public would be forgiving because of the good work they have done. It’s possible that they thought the story would never surface, but that, too, was naive.

The second lesson is this: engage with your stakeholders. The backlash that Komen is feeling right now comes from local supporters and fundraisers. If they had engaged with the affiliates before the decision, the outcome may have been better. I see Komen making much more effort to bring affiliates into the conversation now and even put the spotlight on the impact in local markets.

Will Komen’s reputation be completely restored? As long as abortion is a hotly debated issue, it may be difficult for the nonprofit to restore the relationship with a portion of its base. However, I see Komen trying to refocus on the outcomes of its research investments and the impact of its local affiliates, and that’s where the nonprofit needs to be focused right now. This will help restore its reputation.

Talking Green: Exploring Contemporary Issues in Environmental Communications

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Big celebration today because my book with Lee Ahern just published – Talking Green: Exploring Contemporary Issues in Environmental Communications.  Check it out. The book explores strategies for motivating environmental behaviors by offering a number of thought pieces and research studies reacting to Tom Crompton’s (World Wildlife Fund – UK) white paper, Weathercocks and Signposts.

In the white paper, Tom argues for a greater focus on what he calls a “values-based” approach to environmental communication rather than a “marketing” approach. In a nutshell, the values-based approach taps into identity and associates environmental action with values that people already hold; the marketing approach asks people to take small steps that lead to larger commitments toward the environment.

The chapters explore different aspects of his arguments and add new insights to our understanding of the value and impact of environmental communication. I’ve enjoyed working on the project, and I’m happy to be able to share it with others now.

Thanks to all the chapter contributors. I think the book came together nicely.
Talking Green: Exploring contemporary issues in environmental communications

Building a Business Case for CSR | Institute for Public Relations

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The Institute for Public Relations housed at the University of Florida is an excellent resource for public relations and communications professionals. Check out this excellent post on the IPR blog by Linda Locke at Reputare. She discusses the findings of a number of published research studies on the impact of sustainability and CSR on business outcomes, such at earnings and brand value.

Sustainability reporting: How it’s useful for PR and communication

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Here’s an article written by one of the most energetic and fascinating people in sustainability communication, Lynnette McIntire at UPS (check out some of her work on the UPS blog). The article, titled Why I Love the Sustainability Report Assurance Process and published on Triple Pundit website back in August, shares McIntire’s appreciation for the utility of sustainability reporting. Public relations and communication groups are beginning to view the sustainability report as more than just an opportunity to talk about the good actions of a company. It is a management document that allows for greater accountability within the organization by identifying opportunities and holding the company accountable for responding to them. The document also can become a tool for media relations and activist communication by quantifying an organization’s performance improvements year over year.

Producing a sustainability report requires a high level of investment from a company, and as McIntire says in the article, “gone are the days when carpooling and lighting upgrade stories and smiling volunteer photos made the grade. Now, credible companies talk about such contentious topics as human rights, climate change, racial diversity, sexual orientation and product responsibility.” Companies have the opportunity to take a closer look at their impact on society through the arduous process of compiling a sustainability report.

Check out Lynnette’s work on the 2011 Sustainability Report for UPS. It is a model of goal setting and reporting.

For those of you interested in how sustainability reporting can be leverage in social media, here is the Social Media Sustainability Index published earlier this year. It’s full of interesting examples of sustainability communication on the web, and I’ve found the material in the report to be somewhat useful for strategy development.