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The Evolution of Environmental Communication

Posted: July 27, 2015, 2:50 p.m.
by Mary Claire Hunter.

It’s no longer if companies want to be environmentally friendly; it’s how they’re going to be environmentally friendly. All personal opinions on environmental issues aside, no company can afford not to think about its impact on the Earth’s resources anymore.

This change in public opinion, which began around 10 years ago, has caused organizations both big and small to re-evalute communication efforts. Big businesses had to change the way in which they communicated about the environment, but so did small nonprofit organizations.

Companies as big as Google, General Electric and Coca-Cola have “gone green” over the last years. These large, for-profit organizations are building offices out of recycled materials, reducing emissions and waste, and conserving the world’s natural resources. Communicating with key publics that an organization you represent cares for the future of the environment has become a priority to public relations practitioners across the world.

Over the past few years, local conservation nonprofits have changed the way in which they communicate their missions. Today, the focus become less of an attack on big businesses and more of a collaborative effort. As a result, more people are getting on board with this way of thinking.

In an article published in the Houston Chronicle that examines the need for PR in nonprofits, Sam Ashe-Edmunds noted, “the more positive an image a nonprofit can cultivate, the more opportunities it will have to achieve its mission and goals.”

In a conservation nonprofit, establishing a presence in the community that you serve is of utmost importance. Memorie English, communications coordinator and development assistant with Freshwater Land Trust, expands on the value PR gives to a nonprofit.

“Good communication strategy and messaging is key to increasing donations, which is what every nonprofit needs to thrive,” English said. “Being able to communicate your mission to the public and the media is often the first step in the donor cycle.”

As noted on its website, Freshwater Land Trust is a nonprofit that takes a “businesslike approach to its conservation efforts” and aims to find “win-win solutions that protect the land and the interests of the landowner and allow our community to grow economically.”

Since FWLT has only seven full-time employees, all communication and public relations aspects of the job are primarily English’s responsibility. Increasing public awareness and generating support are not easy tasks but are viable to the success of any nonprofit organization. It is important that all staff members be informed on current goals and be able to communicate effectively with target audiences. This, English says, is another one of her responsibilities as communications coordinator.

Not only are the staff members a way to communicate a nonprofit’s mission, but it also benefits from the reach and impact the board members have within a community.

Merrill Stewart Jr. is the president of Stewart Perry Construction and a member of the board of directors at Cahaba River Society, a nonprofit organization dedicated to the protection and restoration of the Cahaba River watershed. Stewart recognizes that many benefits to both organizations are because of their collaboration.

“We partner with CRS because it’s the right thing to do,” Stewart said. “The benefit is that we co-brand with them. People see us in a different light because they see we are standing up for the environment. That means more revenue for us.”

One of Stewart Perry Construction’s greatest achievements and most beneficial PR moves was the building of its corporate headquarters in 2008. Not only is it a beautiful site, but it has also received a Leadership in Environmental Design (LEED) Silver certification. Both FWLT and CRS hold meetings there, and the community is encouraged to take walks around the campus to appreciate the nature that surrounds it. Stewart said the company has gained customers as a result of the environmental thought that went into the construction of its headquarters.

Nonprofit organizations compete with for-profit organizations for media coverage but with less funds to do so. They are also competing with other nonprofits for awareness and donor support. In addition to these obstacles, many nonprofits are short-staffed, which means that communication responsibilities fall on one staff member. In many conservation organizations, PR tends to be moved to the back burner.

Monica Carmichael is the director of development for Cahaba River Society. Carmichael wears many hats within this organization; in addition to her development responsibilities, she handles all PR efforts as well.

CRS-logo-300dpi“Despite PR and communications being among the most important functions, CRS and many other small nonprofit organizations simply lack the resources to prioritize these tasks,” Carmichael said. “We hope to change that in the coming years.”

A benefit of being a small nonprofit, however, comes when an external factor occurs that requires a quick response. When the recent recession hit, for example, financial support of nonprofit conservation organizations declined. Small organizations like Cahaba River Society swiftly developed new communication plans in order to survive and thrive in a tough economy.

“We understood clearly that to broaden our base, it was imperative we deepen our work with development professionals, local governments, businesses, faith communities, and youth,” Carmichael said. “This collaborative approach to education has made possible the growth CRS has experienced in the years since.”

As people continue to realize that Earth’s resources are not infinite, public relations will continue to play a role in the collaborative success of conservation nonprofit organizations and other companies across the globe.


  1. Post comment

    Excellent article, Mary Claire. I share your interest and passion regarding conservation nonprofit organizations. Organizations like Freshwater Land Trust and Cahaba River Society are vital to society. It takes an ardent worker to be such a large component of these small nonprofits due to their ever-expanding responsibilities. Concerning funding and the recent recession, Monica Carmichael’s quote, “we understood clearly that to broaden our base, it was imperative we deepen our work with development professionals, local governments, businesses, faith communities and youth. This collaborative approach to education has made possible the growth CRS has experiences in the years since,” really resonated with me. Communication professionals like Carmichael cease to inspire and refuse to quit when faced with bleak financial situations. Experiences like hers enhance the importance of communication departments within these organizations and further amplify public relations’ relevance in businesses of all types.


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