Environmental public relations, or greenwash, has been a response to the rise of environmental concern, particularly in the late 1980s. Many firms responded with green marketing campaigns in an effort to portray their products as environmentally friendly and capitalise on new markets created by rising environmental consciousness. Green imagery was used to sell products and caring for the environment became a marketing strategy. For example, plastics once advertised for their throw-away convenience were now touted as recyclable.
Environmental PR is a response to:
- Negative image of industry
- Increasing public disclosure of business activity
- Increasing public environmental concern
PR professionals are being used to counter these negative perceptions of business, caused in most cases by their poor environmental performance. Rather than substantially change business practices so as to earn a better reputation many firms are turning to PR professionals to create one for them. After all “it is easier and less costly to change the way people think about reality than it is to change reality.”
Public relations can be aimed at the general public (grassroots propaganda) or at influential members of the society such as politicians, top bureaucrats, media executives and commentators (treetops propaganda). It is the latter group which sets the terms of the debate and the political agenda. Treetops propaganda has been important in ensuring that the debate over pollution, for example, is not discussed in terms of rights to clean air but rather in terms of the costs of cleaning up the air to the polluters and how clean we can reasonably expect the air to be given these costs.
Environmental public relations involves the use of the media, educational institutions, community forums, conferences, and talk-back radio. These more traditional forums are also being supplemented with many more made possible by emerging technologies:
Satellite feeds, customized and localized 800-numbers and telemarketing capabilities, computer bulletin boards, advanced mail list merge/purge capabilities, CD ROM publishing, simultaneous multi-location fax transmission, videobrochures, interactive video, electronic couponing, and home shopping networks didn’t exist a decade ago. All these technologies represent ways to reach audiences more directly and efficiently than ever before.
Whereas, in the past public relations used to be mainly about publicity, about a third of environmental public relations is nowadays about strategic counselling—shaping public and government perceptions of environmental problems and finding ways to counter environmentalists and environmental regulations. These days public relations firms perform such diverse tasks as forming grassroots organisations for their clients and gathering information on activists and journalists.
Good PR can forestall the demand for tough regulation of corporations. An internal General Motors document stated that “GM Public Relations helps to make GM so well accepted by its various publics that it may pursue its corporate mission unencumbered by public-imposed limitations or regulations.” Similarly Jeff and Marie Blyskal pointed out in their book on PR that, “because of good image PR, a new DuPont chemical plant would probably be welcomed into a community more warmly than, say, a new plant for Hooker Chemical, whose dark Love Canal reputation precedes it.”
Greenwashing, Greenscamming and Greenspeak are all different terms for public relations efforts to portray an organisation, activity or product as environmentally friendly.
Greenwash derives from the term whitewash and indicates that organisations using greenwash are trying to cover up environmentally and/or socially damaging activities, sometimes just with rhetoric, sometimes with minor or superficial environmental reforms. Similarly Greenscamming indicates an element of fraud and deception and refers to the practice of using environmental names for groups or products that are not environmentally friendly. Greenspeak is a more neutral term meaning environmental language, jargon and terms. It is sometimes used to indicate environmental language that lacks substance, is not genuine or is merely empty rhetoric. Greenspeak is also used by anti-environmental groups to derogatively refer to arguments made by environmentalists.