Thursday, November 08, 2012

A New Perspective of PR

If you really want to succeed in public relations (PR) you need to see the big picture and align yourself with the strategic imperatives that are reshaping the world in which we live.  Yet, so often, the subjects of PR campaigns are tactical, limited, short term and insignificant in the grand scheme of things.  That’s where PR budgets get poured down the drain. Campaigns don’t deliver, PR is blamed and the messenger is shot. Take the sustainability debate, for instance.  You’d think this would be pretty much the epitome of serious stuff.  But so often communication in this segment is small-scale and about being worthy - `doing good’ as a route to a better world.  Clearly, the road to hell really is paved with good intentions.
The current omnishambles of the Government’s `Green Deal’ and Feed-In Tariff debacle is a case in point.  Despite the undoubted good intentions of Government, it shows a classic case of misalignment between the interests of the public sector, industry and the consumer.  Not only has a PR moment been missed, everyone in the value chain has lost for want of effective leadership and communication.
The same challenge to delivering sustainability has applied for many years in the financial markets. Investors have struggled with the demands of delivering superior returns whilst at the same time requiring environmental, social and ethical responsibility in the companies in which they invest.
Good intentions in the financial markets, whilst admirable, have not proven to produce decent returns, neither have they proven to encourage sustainability. Again aims are not aligned, everyone has lost.
Responsibility, investment, sustainability and business are routinely regarded as odd bedfellows with tactical PR campaigns often attempting to paper over the cracks as communities, legislators or the markets are placated or appeased. But ultimately, to be an effective partnership, and to support powerful PR messages that cut through, their marriage must be born of objectivity, pragmatism and most of all, of course, aligned interests.
But there is a twist to the tale. Far from being a simplistic Band-Aid, the efforts of corporate and financial PR professionals and their PR agencies, combined with the transparency the internet brings, have created a large and growing pool of hard and comparable audited data on corporate sustainability.
Using this, it is possible to determine the resource efficiency of a company relative to its peers. Resource efficient organisations are those that produce more output from less input.  The added benefit is that resource efficient businesses also display attractive investment characteristics. Everybody wins - the organisation, the investor and the environment. Now that’s great PR.
Resource efficiency is not a subjective rating determined in a corner office on Wall Street any more than it is the preserve of people who chose to live in teepees in the far flung corners of the British Isles. The basis of resource efficiency is the actual observed amount of resource used, consumed and in the case of waste, created, in the process of generating a unit of revenue; the cubic metre of water, the kilojoules of energy, the ton of carbon dioxide equivalent.  It is real, objective, hard and unequivocal.
And the benefits are not static. Research shows that resource-efficient companies become more resource efficient over time through innovation and `intrapreneurship’ both internally and through the company’s supply chain, making them more competitive and therefore capable of delivering greater value to investors.
Everyone keeps winning as management teams that are forward thinking, aware of the economic imperatives brought about by resource constraint, attract investment. So, wealth creation from resource conservation.  That’s a very powerful self-reinforcing combination of two interests, a virtuous circle that also makes a powerful story.  This is the idea behind the recently launched Osmosis MoRE World Resource Efficiency Fund Aerospace and cars manufacturers, logistics suppliers and cosmetics firms might not be the first place you’d expect to find sustainability - perhaps because they don’t explicitly prioritise sustainability as a key platform in their communications.  Yet the numbers show leviathans such as Boeing, BMW, UPS and L’Oreal are highly resource efficient in their respective industries. Even Unilever recently announced it was swapping the earnings rat race for sustainability.
Boeing, for instance, has maintained a forward thinking approach to energy consumption for many years.  The fact that it draws on both historic and renewable energy sources and uses internally created technology to store and distribute this energy may not be immediately apparent, but energy intensity measures constructed from corporate sustainability reports over several years indicate high and rising relative resource efficiency. Clearly that’s a good thing.
Now here’s the rub. Markets tend to reward these companies, not for their resource efficiency per se but for how their resource efficiency translates into financial ratios that the market appreciates.  The point is that the two powerful forces are aligned and they are a force for good.
So, PR is playing its part in creating the conditions for sustainability as well as the storytelling.  Rather than greenwashing reality, it is producing the figures that can take good intent to an objective, pragmatic and measurable level and aligning communities of interest to make a real difference.  In that respect PR is really walking the talk.

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