Sustainability’s surprising PR problem
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Sustainability’s surprising PR problem

Arun Sudhaman

Ken Livingstone has led a more colourful political life than most. So when he gets asked as to what surprises him, people listen carefully. When that question was put to him at last week’s Edelman Crystal Ball event, the former London Mayor settled on the failed Copenhagen Accord of 2009. By then, he noted, the scale of the climate change threat was clear, yet countries still walked away from a deal. It is a development that Livingstone is still shocked by today, and rightly so. After that experience, though, he will have been much less startled by this year’s US Presidential campaign, which appeared to operate on the assumption that ‘climate change’ was a perfectly good phrase to use, once the first word was deleted. Three years ago, a rising sustainability agenda was expected to irrevocably demonstrate the importance of public relations, by making explicit the link between reputation, environmental accountability and corporate behaviour. To some extent, that has happened, as evidenced by the efforts of such companies as Unilever and M&S. But Copenhagen (and the recession) scuppered much of this promise, and nowhere is this more clear than in the renewable energy industry. An example. I can think of at least two major public relations firms that launched cleantech practices in 2009, but I have heard little from them since. Perhaps, you might say, they got what they deserved from treating the industry as a passing fad. Maybe. Yet if the cleantech industry is going to attract the attention it thinks it deserves, than it probably needs to convince people that it is worth backing, rather than being defined by high-profile fiascos such as the ill-fated Solyndra venture. The scale of this particular challenge was brought home to me by CCgroup’s excellent recent survey of media attitudes towards the UK renewable energy sector. The prognosis is not bright. The study finds the industry facing a “communications crisis”, where only 21 percent of national newspaper articles are positive. Even more worryingly, only 10 percent of articles actually included quotes from a cleantech industry source, a disturbing trend for any industry that relies on public and regulatory support for its survival. Amid this carnage exist some glimmers of hope. YouGov has found that the vast majority of the UK population supports greater wind and solar development. The challenge is not dissimilar to the one that the nuclear industry addressed with such success in the 25 years since Chernobyl, when it neutralized sensational media coverage by focusing on such issues as business growth, development, safety and broader economic benefits. And cleantech, of course, does not have to worry about safety issues. In truth, the cleantech sector’s PR problems are hardly beyond salvation. Plenty of businesses have faced down similar challenges, but they do require the industry to accept that its overall reputation is of critical importance to its long-term success. And that this can only be improved through a commitment to honest and open communication and advocacy. The solutions to this particular problem lie in vocal, sensible public relations. No surprises there. Even a canny campaigner like Ken Livingstone would attest to that.
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