Posted by: Ian Ross | May 18, 2008

Greenwashing staining PR

It seems nearly everyone is trying to paint themselves green these days. And to be seen as the greenest, millions of dollars are being poured into public relations campaigns.

Unfortunately, many politicians, celebrities and companies want to put most of their effort into appearances and little into policy or products changes. For example, Alberta is trying convince everyone that oil sands are not environmentally harmful and John Travolta rails against climate change while flying around alone in his personal 747. And this is just the tip of the melting iceberg – there are dozens of similar recent cases.

This is greenwashing – “disinformation disseminated by an organization so as to present an environmentally responsible public image.” I would argue it is not only harmful to the environment by misleading environmentally-conscience consumers, it is also harming the PR industry. It reinforces our image as unethical spinners.

This was echoed once again in a quote by Mark Winfield, a York University environmental studies professor, in the Toronto Star. He looks at environmental campaigns to see “Has there been a change in behaviour, or is it just PR strategy? You’ve got to look behind the green tinsel.”

The Canadian Public Relations Society’s code of ethics clearly states, “A member shall practice the highest standards of honesty, accuracy, integrity and truth, and shall not knowingly disseminate false or misleading information.”

So why aren’t PR agencies and professionals taking a harder line with their clients and bosses? Why are we creating enviro PR campaigns that have no substance? Are we not harming our profession by doing this?



  1. This is a huge issue for me personally. I’m not in PR but am considering the field and for me, the environmental issues are going to show me who has their ethics right and who doesn’t. There’s going to be a lot of money available to PR agencies to do this sort of thing, and it may be difficult for some to turn work down or to challenge clients, but this is a very serious issue for everyone, and I fear that too many PR firms are simply going to chase the money for short-term gain. Please prove me wrong, guys!

  2. Mr. Ross;

    I will share my three thoughts on the topic.

    1 – When I say I am a PR Counselor, what should immediately be ascribed to me is the role of an advisor to business. (Arthur Page anyone?) If I were to say I am an efficiency expert, you would certainly associate me to a hatchet man.

    So, to talk about image problem, let’s start at home. Carrying water is not what I do or does that image represent the best public relations practice has to offer business, especially business doing “ungreen” things. Dr. Bernays would give you an earful on the subject were he still with us.

    2 – My next thought is to hell with Green. I like blue myself, and have a nice tie collection in various shades of that colour which I usually wear to the green meetings I have occasion to attend. What exactly is green: inexperienced? How about devils and pixies? Well, according to colour psychology….

    I like the word SUSTAINABLE. If we could go to the ATM/cashpoint and make withdrawals forever and a day without making a deposit – no one would complain. Senior bank executives might do it to the tune of millions of dollars. (hmm.) The rest of us may be more modest in our plunder.

    But the thought of endlessly taking and not returning is ludicrous. Why? Because it is not green? Hardly. Until recently I always liked the greenback myself.

    No, we cannot do it because it is an unsustainable practice. Now whether we want to follow unsustainable practices such as making endless withdrawals from the ATM (economic), burning every tree ever invented (environmental), or disrupt the lives of whole cultures (social), the question of best practice remains: are these practices sustainable?

    What should a public relations counselor advise? I advise my clients to wear a white shirt and a blue tie, and to leave the green one at home.

    3 – My reaction to why “we” (and I use the term loosely) are not doing a better job with clients and aiming ourselves towards a loftier, sustainable goal is because no one supports it: not the client, and not our PR guild(s). This argument can be based on the two points above: the perception of PR “we” put on show for our clients to see, and the use of the word green vs. sustainable.

    Green is a paint colour. It is meant to be used as a whitewash. An authentic, sustainable business that calls itself green is a disservice to their own relating to their public(s), IMHO.

    This is where I step onto my soapbox about the need to license PR practice etc., and to better train and support our industry practitioners so we may all better understand the differences in philosophy between reality and perception, and not just workshop us to death on technical skills to demonstrate to us perception really is reality.

    Perception is about separate images. Reality is about one reputation built on separate images. If the images are sustainable and formed around a core based in reality then the reputation of the client cannot be likened to a house of cards. It is also a fundamental best practice to good crisis management.

    Until we have a proud self-government to internally control who represents professional PR, we will have a bunch of hucksters without the intrinsic motivation to individually stand up for the industry.

    Kow-tow pays better money when the industry culture says the customer is always right.

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