Sustainable PR

There was a time when safeguarding a company's image was the only role for PR, but these days companies can come under fire not just for something they've done, but for not behaving in the way they are expected to.

There was a time when safeguarding a company’s image was the only role for PR, but these days companies can come under fire not just for something they’ve done, but for not behaving in the way they are expected to.

Tobacco companies were vilified for hiding dangerous information about their products. Fast food producers are now under attack for their role in America’s obesity epidemic. Oil and gas companies are increasingly held responsible for the toll they have taken on the environment, just as car manufacturers are now required to provide the maximum safety features available and beer companies are expected to educate people on the dangers of drinking and driving.

Keeping up with the public conscience is hard work, but companies that want to maintain a strong corporate image, or just keep an eye on what issues they might have to face next, are learning that pro-active PR tactics are one way to stay on top of criticism while lending credibility to their brands.

Dr. John Robinson is the principal investigator at the University of British Columbia’s Sustainable Development Research Institute and a professor in the school’s Resource Management and Environmental Studies interdisciplinary graduate program. His feeling is that ‘branded companies have an increasing need to engage with the public in a whole bunch of dimensions.

‘Shell is the perfect case in point,’ he says. ‘They got hammered by Brent Spar [Shell's controversial decision in 1995 to sink a disused oil platform off Canada's east coast] and Nigeria [where anti-Shell activist Ken Saro-Wiwa was executed in 1995]. In both cases they were blindsided. They had no idea, but they should have. Their sales dropped 30% in Germany over Brent Spar. They got hit heavily in the pocketbook, but not just with customers. They had trouble with recruits and with employees who were leaving.’

Recognizing that their brand was in trouble, Shell Canada turned to advertising, including a full-page print ad in The Globe and Mail in November of 1995 that frankly expressed regrets on the Saro-Wiwa case, and asked for ‘clear thinking’ on the issue. Reviews were mixed, ranging from ‘how dumb do they think we are?’ to ‘finally, they’re confronting the issue.’ Strategy columnist Barry Base applauded the ad that ‘plunged directly and eloquently into the fray.’

Shell has kept up the confrontational advertising, most recently with a consumer campaign this past January and February dubbed ‘Action Today with Tomorrow in Mind.’ The campaign included print ads in Canadian magazines and newspapers and two international television commercials. One ad posed the question ‘Cloud the issue or clear the air?’ to launch into an announcement of Shell’s commitment to renewable energy and social responsibility. Another print ad read ‘Not all the experts we listen to are employed by Shell,’ along with a photo of a First Nations Albertan woman who is sharing ‘traditional environmental knowledge’ with Shell.

An innovative PR campaign is lending credibility to those claims.

‘One of our commitments is to look for ways to be more transparent in the business we do, and to look for ways to engage stakeholders in conversation,’ says Jan Rowley, public affairs manager at Shell Canada in Calgary. ‘It could be customers, resource companies, landowners, regulators, employees, or environmental groups and members of the general public. Often PR tactics are a way to do that.’

Those tactics have included ‘open house’ meetings in Alberta communities where Shell is actively exploring or developing oil and gas wells. The open house allows local landowners to meet Shell employees and learn how oil and gas extraction will affect them. The company holds similar communications sessions internally, where company leaders present plans and listen to employee feedback. An annual employee survey is another way for employees to get heard.

The latest part of the campaign was a series of ‘academic roundtables’ – open discussions on post-secondary campuses where Shell representatives explain what sustainable development means at Shell, and then open the discussion to students’ expectations of multinationals and Shell itself. This year, roundtables have been held at the University of Alberta, University of Toronto, Dalhousie, University of British Columbia, and this October, Queen’s.

Doug Gregory, Shell’s east coast operations manager in Halifax, attended the roundtable at Dalhousie in February where students asked questions about Shell’s research in renewable energy, corporate ethics and business ethics in general, the role of businesses funding university research, and the company’s environmental performance.

‘We’re a big company in a society where big companies are often suspected, for doing this, or for not doing that,’ Gregory says. ‘We get some good press and some bad press, and it’s always useful to see how that’s received. The only way to check that is to ask people.’

Gregory was disappointed that only three students were present, none of whom were earth science majors, but left pleased with the level of engagement the small number allowed. The students asked questions about Shell’s sustainable development plans and their commitment to renewable energy. The students were also interested in how much money Shell was spending on advertising.

‘I’ve found that people want to be engaged,’ he says. ‘Whenever I’ve done it, certainly people are appreciative of the fact that we tried to communicate with them. If I know I’m going into an audience that is hostile and is concerned about Shell and Nigeria and has anger towards us, then as a person I feel intimidated, but that doesn’t happen very often. People and organizations seem to welcome us. They want to hear our side of whatever story is going on.’

Robinson was a principal organizer of the academic roundtable at UBC in April where about 20 environmental studies students discussed sustainable development plans and corporate responsibility issues with Shell representatives.

‘Our students tend to be pretty activist in orientation and sceptical of business,’ he says. ‘Their visceral view is negative. They would have come as sceptics to this kind of meeting, and a few afterwards said they thought this was ‘all just PR’ and ‘brainwash.’ On the other hand, those same students said they were impressed by the fact that Shell came.

‘I think it’s important for Shell to be out in the community and be exposed to criticism and to hear it directly instead of filtered through the media, and it’s important for both sides to see that they are real human beings.’

A few meetings with students won’t affect the company’s bottom line, but results show that Shell’s comprehensive efforts have, on the whole, paid off. A survey by Energy magazine looked at Shell’s ‘favourability’ rating among people in financial, business, academic, government, media and non-governmental organizations and found that Shell has made great strides in relation to the rest of the oil and gas industry – most of whom have made no special efforts to woo the public. The survey found Shell was viewed favourably by almost 30% of people in the academic community in 2002, compared to a 0% favorability rating in 2000, and just 5% for the sector at large.

Other companies have not been so pro-active. Trish Jordan is manager of public and industry affairs at Winnipeg-based Monsanto Canada, a major producer of genetically modified crops.

‘We don’t engage directly with the public because we don’t feel we have the level of credibility to deal with that,’ Jordan says. ‘We have certainly changed our approach with the media, in terms of being available for comment and defending our practices where we feel it’s appropriate, and I think we have a fairly high degree of credibility in that regard. But to a consumer who may have a certain image of a gigantic multinational biotech company, listening to a Monsanto person tell them that biotech is great and it’s safe probably carries less weight.’

The only problem is that a company like Monsanto is expected to defend its practises. Increasingly, the public is less and less willing to extend what Robinson calls the ‘social licence to operate’ to companies that are not only doing something that concerns them, but are also seen to be ignoring those concerns.

As a start, Monsanto has been working with the Council for Biotech Information (CBI), an industry group formed precisely to address consumer concerns. Last fall, the CBI launched an ongoing consumer awareness campaign informing people of some of the benefits of GM crops and directing people towards further information. The theme was ‘Would it surprise you to know…,’ that, for example, genetically modified foods cut down on pesticide use. Print ads ran in urban and rural publications, from Maclean’s to Reader’s Digest, and a television ad airs on TSN and CBC.

Small education initiatives may be the logical response to a complex issue that is widely misunderstood, but so is meeting with lobbyists, and actually listening to their concerns. Meanwhile, hiding from the issue is guaranteed not to win Monsanto any fans.

‘[Hiding] is typical of the North American marketplace,’ says Alan Middleton, an associate professor of marketing at the Schulich School of Business at Toronto’s York University.

‘Corporations have been rather like ostriches, burying their heads in the sand and hoping the issues would go away. But those corporations that routinely meet with and co-opt the views of different lobby groups, and are prepared to make changes toward the more moderate end of the demands will consistently do better with their marketing, and also with their customers.’

The conversation is just beginning, but there are a few examples of companies that have made efforts to pre-empt these kind of issues. BMW in Germany, for example, has been highly responsive to the environmental movement. BMW now leads all other companies with innovative design and construction that makes it easier to collect and recycle used cars.

Closer to home, Mississauga, Ont.-based Purolator announced in late October that it had signed a ‘memorandum of understanding’ with Vancouver’s Azure Dynamics Corporation, signaling the start of an investigation into retro-fitting 3,000 of Purolator’s courier vehicles with Azure’s environmentally responsible technology. Azure’s hybrid-electric powertrains substantially reduce ground-level pollutants and greenhouse gas emissions in vehicles. [See also BP's recent efforts in 'Brand Matters,' pg. 12.]

‘We are in an era of global lobby and pressure groups,’ Middleton says. ‘These groups are getting stronger, and the reason they’re getting stronger is because they know how to use communications more effectively than the corporations they’re battling. Greenpeace is the key example of this. So if I’m a big corporation, I want to hear what’s on their minds. I want to listen. As long as they are communicating with the public, then for my own survival, it’s my responsibility to get my side of the message out there.’

Katherine Muncaster is an environmental studies student and research assistant at UBC’s Sustainable Development Research Institute. She agrees that companies will have to make changes, and she won’t accept empty promises.

‘For a large company like Shell, a few feel-good environmental projects aren’t enough to impress me. I like to see genuine change in company operations. Many consumers are smart enough to distinguish between genuine solutions and short-term PR solutions.’