Growing interest in the environment, driven by the seemingly incontrovertible evidence that human activity is contributing to a warming of the planet, presents an obvious opportunity for public relations practitioners. Corporations are feeling pressure to communicate their eco-friendly activities to a wide range of stakeholders—financial analysts in London now routinely question CEOs about their efforts to become carbon neutral—and are turning to public relations firms for advice.
But the new wave of environmental interest could also create a challenge for PR agencies. As giant companies face more detailed questions about their carbon emissions, several are beginning to look not only at their own environmental policies but also at those of their suppliers—and professional service firms are not exempt from this scrutiny.
HP, for example, now devotes a section of its corporate citizenship website to its supply chain program. “In selecting and retaining qualified suppliers,” the company says, “HP will show preference to suppliers that meet or exceed our expectations.”
International law firm Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer announced at the end of last year that it would become carbon neutral across all its offices in 2007 by off-setting its carbon emissions and taking additional steps actively to reduce its emissions. “Actively taking steps to reduce the environmental impact of doing business is a high priority for us,” said joint senior partner Guy Morton. “It is important to our partners, our clients, and our employees.”
Four Communications was the first U.K. public relations consultancy to be recognized as carbon neutral—meaning that it balances the environmental impact of its business by a variety of environmentally-friendly activities—by the Edinburgh Centre for Carbon Management, and since then several other larger firms have made a similar commitment.
Clients are likely to demand that offers follow suit.
Over the past few months, for example, the president of one multinational public relations firm says his agency has twice been asked by clients about his agency’s efforts to reduce its carbon footprint. Another says that he has seen at least two requests for proposals indicating that the client would not hire a firm that did not have a serious commitment to reducing carbon emissions.
While all of the clients in those cases were headquartered in Europe, they were also multinational corporations, and most observers expect the trend to spread quickly to the United States.
Helen Ostrowski, chief executive of Porter Novelli, says her firm is starting to see more of these queries in Europe and the U.S. “The RFPs ask not only what our own environmental and sustainability policies are, but also what steps we take to ensure that our customers/suppliers are carbon efficient or neutral, including audits and annual inspections.”
She says that because most of the questions so far have been in single-country assignments, the firm’s environmental policies have been written locally and still vary from country to country. “That said, the growing number of these questions have prompted us to enhance our policies and practices to provide more consistency market to market and on a regional or global basis.”
Similarly, David Brain, chief executive of Edelman’s European operation, says the issue has reached “a tipping point” and concedes that his firm “is not there yet,” but pledges: “We will begin to change the way our businesses operate and bring down our carbon impact.”
The issue is probably most pressing in the U.K., where public and private sector companies are under pressure to better manage and measure their environmental impact.
“I think it’s pretty safe to say that achieving carbon neutral status is more of a European issue right now,” says Mark Hass, global chief executive at Manning Selvage & Lee. “But globally we are definitely seeing more of an interest in environmental issues. It’s coming up more and more frequently in RFPs—companies are asking us about our environmental policies and commitments, and are genuinely interested in what we are doing.”
“For some years now it has been common for public sector organisations to ask PR firms to provide details of their environmental credentials when bidding for work,” says Katy Cosh, a director at Trimedia Harrison Cowley in the U.K. “But increasingly they are looking for more than a few standard lines on recycled paper and printing double-sided.
“More and more corporate clients— particularly those companies that have taken a very public stand on green issues such as Tesco, Marks & Spencer and BT—are starting to look at the environmental performance of their suppliers…. Whilst a tip-top environmental record won’t be enough to win a pitch, in today’s climate, a poor one could be enough to lose it.”
Cosh is currently working on bringing together the best environmental policies of Trimedia and Harrison Cowley—the two Huntsworth-owned agencies merged at the beginning of the year—to a create a new policy that will cover waste minimisation, reducing carbon emissions and using environmentally friendly suppliers and will be independently audited.
Meanwhile, employees at many agencies—particularly in Europe—are beginning to ask questions about their firms’ employees. Weber Shandwick chief executive Harris Diamond says that “the fact that clients are asking about this stuff is yesterday’s news; today the toughest questions are coming from our own employees.”
At some firms, changes in environmental policy have been driven by employees. The U.K. operations of Ketchum, for example, adopted several new eco-friendly measures after two mid-level employees raised the issue at a staff meeting. The company now recycles, distributes cloth bags to employees to cut down on the use of plastic, provides a shower for people who cycle to work, and has replaced all disposable cups with glasses. It even installed a wormery, which greengardener.com describes as “an easy to use & efficient system of converting ordinary kitchen waste into top quality compost and concentrated liquid feed through the natural action of worms.”
As Vicky Morrison, account coordinator for the firm, told The Guardian: “It was hard to get used to, and everyone grumbled a bit—we joke to each other that we’re going to rebel and not print double-sided—but everyone has really got into it. I didn’t realize how much I wasted daily. I organize everyone’s travel and I never thought about the amount of carbon we used.”
She says the environmental program has made a difference to morale. “The best thing is knowing that you’re doing something for the environment, but it’s also the sense of togetherness. You really feel you’re part of something. And because we’re doing it as a company, I feel together we can actually make a difference.”
Martin Gibson, director of eco-consultancy Envirowise, says that’s a common reaction. “A lot of people try to be environmentally friendly at home, but they don’t carry that behavior through to work. It’s probably down to empowerment: people feel that they can’t control what happens, so they don’t do anything.”
But with employees and clients demanding a change in the way public relations firms do business, more and more agencies are making a commitment to higher environmental standards.
“I’m interested in this, too, both because clients are asking about it but also because operating in the best and least disruptive way is the right thing for us to do,” says MS&L’s Hass. “Travel is definitely something we would like to reduce, but so are things like using energy efficient light bulbs and organizing better recycling programs.”
Weber Shandwick’s London HQ was recently awarded ISO14,001 environmental certification in recognition of its policies and procedures to ensure robust management of a range of environmental initiatives. According to the firm’s international head of corporate responsibility and sustainability Brendan Mary, the company has “reviewed its sourcing policies, changing all its printers making it much harder for staff to send reams of paper which are never read to the printer, as well as setting double sided non-color printing as a default which can only be changed for final copies.
“All new equipment purchasing for Weber Shandwick in the U.K. is now subject to environmental criteria. Internal initiatives on recycling and waste have ensured much greater responsibility in stewarding resources. Weber Shandwick also switched taxi providers to one which offsets its carbon emissions. The company is currently reviewing its catering to ensure greener procurement, from water to coffee, and the food sold in the company’s canteen.”
Globally, talks are underway with the Rainforest Alliance on a global paper sourcing strategy, and the company last year offset 170 international and domestic flights to its management summit, working with Climate Care—a U.K. company that helps with carbon offsetting—to offset the emissions generated by the flights: nearly 200 tonnes of carbon.
Says May: “Although we would never claim to have reached anything other than the first steps of a long journey towards sustainability, we are incredibly enthused by the commitment of both our staff and senior management in driving changes which are not only right for the environment, but increasingly demanded by our customers.
“We will continue to use our influence over our own suppliers to make further improvements across our network and continue to expand programmes designed to raise employee awareness of our environmental impacts and how we can reduce them in our day to day work.”
Capital MS&L, the financial communications subsidiary of Manning Selvage & Lee, announced in November of last year that it was committed to achieving carbon neutral status. In addition to reducing its carbon footprint, Capital is also working with The CarbonNeutral Company to calculate any remaining CO2 emissions and offset them through investment in projects around the world that successfully reduce emissions.
Capital worked with The CarbonNeutral Company to select offset projects that reduce emissions elsewhere in the world by one tonne for every tonne of CO2 that Capital creates. Among those projects are an energy efficiency initiative in Jamaica that distributes compact fluorescent light bulbs in poorer inner city neighborhoods, and a reforestation project in Chiapas, Mexico.
Says Richard Campbell, joint managing director of Capital MS&L, “As a firm, Capital has always had a commitment to sustainable business practises including a commitment to the environment in which our employees and their families live and work. It is a small step compared to the huge environmental challenges that are undoubtedly facing the world over the next few years, however for Capital and its employees it was important to demonstrate our conviction that organisations and individuals must now take responsibility for the world around us.”
Four Communications, meanwhile, has built on its leadership position in recent years, seeking to adopt a more rigorous approach to cutting waste by working with the Carbon Trust and launching a scholarship program with Earthwatch, a conservation volunteering organization. So far, the firm has awarded four Earthwatch scholarships for environmental projects in Scotland, Iceland, Kenya and South America.
“Becoming carbon neutral should not be the only objective,” says Trimedia’s Cosh, “Any firm that throws enough money at carbon offsetting projects can become carbon neutral without achieving any reductions in their carbon emissions. Crucially, PR firms need to look at making real and sustainable changes in their day-to-day operations and should be seeking to demonstrate continual improvement against measurable targets.
“We all know this is a challenge for busy firms already juggling client servicing with news business activities and a host of other operational demands but putting environmental issues on the board agenda will almost certainly pay dividends in the long run.”