Published on October 27, 2019, at 2:15 p.m.
by Heather Griffin.
The public relations industry provides many opportunities to follow your passions. You can choose to go into finance, fashion, consumer or even environmental public relations. Environmental PR is one of the lesser-known industries, yet it has an incredible impact on the world around us. It brings to light pressing issues and allows PR practitioners to showcase how brands are addressing these issues.
Environmental PR serves two main functions in our society, one internal and one external. Its external role is to serve as an advocate for the environment. Practitioners who support this role often work in nonprofits, and their main job is to help environmentalism go mainstream. They work with and for nonprofits to raise awareness of the many issues our environment faces, in hopes of driving people to take action.
Take the Save the Rainforests movement of the late 80s/early 90s, for example. Though this movement may not have actually saved the rainforests, it did leave a lasting impact on consumers — most millennials would tell you that they owned a Save the Rainforest T-shirt, had lunch at the quirky Rainforest Café or possibly even joined a protest march during their youth. What’s the reason behind these consumer choices? Good PR.
“Creating activism is a very different beast from creating a customer. You [have] to get inside a nascent activist’s head, take up space in there with imagery and facts about this wondrous place,” said Herbert Chao Gunter, the man at forefront of the Save the Rainforest’s movement and founder of the Public Media Center in San Francisco. “The activist organizations started with awareness; before you can make anyone care about the rainforest, you have to actually tell them about the rainforest, and why it’s so cool.”
Words are a powerful tool, one that public relations professionals use constantly. While it is the hope that every PR practitioner strives to use their words for good, people who work in environmental communications have a chance to not only make an impact, but to literally save the world. “Seeing what’s out there gives a lot of inspiration. The sky’s the limit,” said Molly Harrington, a former marketing and sustainability intern for a Fortune 100 corporation.
With climate activists like Greta Thunberg taking center stage in news cycles lately, environmental PR is becoming increasingly more important. According to a survey conducted by the Pew Research Center, 74% of U.S. adults said that “the country should do whatever it takes to protect the environment.” This survey was conducted in 2017, prior to current trends in society, such as the Save the Turtles movement and the recent climate strikes inspired by Thunberg, both of which have undoubtedly helped propel environmentalism to center stage.
A key aspect of environmental communications is doing grassroots outreach to garner awareness of the cause being supported. Mary Beth Brown, communications director at Freshwater Land Trust, an environmental nonprofit based in Birmingham, Alabama, said that “a big part of my job is event planning and making sure we’re out in the community to make sure our people have the opportunity to interact with the public.” Brown believes this type of outreach helps organizations connect better with their key publics. “It’s very helpful as a communications professional to have something tangible you can touch and see and smell and feel and experience, and that brings a lot more life into our stories and how we talk about our work,” she explained.
However, it’s not all sunshine and rainbows for environmental communications. One of the biggest challenges PR practitioners face is finding ways to combine fundraising efforts with their awareness campaigns. Brown said, “My main role is creating strategies that are effective in telling stories, that resonate with folks and creating a brand that is visible and memorable and that draws people in. You have to figure out how to do that and at the same time raise money for your organization.”
While most people immediately think of nonprofits when they hear environmentalism, there are many corporations striving to
decrease their impact on planet Earth, and they need someone to communicate these efforts to their publics. This effort could include communicating to employees that a corporation values environmentalism and that it wants to establish this value as a part of its company culture, or communicating to consumers that the corporation is dedicated to helping the planet.
Patagonia is one of the most well-known brands when it comes to environmental activism. The brand recently changed its mission statement to reflect its dedication, stating that “we’re in business to save the planet. At Patagonia, we appreciate that all life on earth is under threat of extinction. We aim to use the resources we have — our business, our investments, our voice and our imaginations — to do something about it.” The communication strategies being implemented at Patagonia are effective — the company’s revenue has quadrupled over the last 10 years, according to Fast Company.
Harrington believes that “in today’s society, there are a lot of green products, but there’s also the challenge of green-washing. Green-washing is a big challenge for corporations and small businesses because it can undermine everything.” Brands can no longer slap the words “eco-friendly” on a product in order to sell it; they have to live out the causes they support by considering their environmental impact from the beginning steps of their product development and in the ways they run their companies. “I loved seeing how much effort goes into creating a sustainable product,” said Harrington. When brands find ways to truly live out their environmental principles and beliefs rather than just marketing their products as green, they are able to stand out in a busy, green-washed market.
Despite being a relatively small industry, environmental communications has the power to influence generations and spark movements that could save the planet.