public relations

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/

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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.

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.

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.