PR director Paul Thomas explains why all green communication strategies need to act global
In this digitally connected world, all external communications are global. The internet has made it impossible for PR professionals to divide up media campaigns by country or continent. Today, international organisations are becoming increasingly aware of this and are making attempts to undertake campaigns that are implemented consistently across the world. This is particularly important for sustainability communications programmes, which by their very nature deal with issues that have global significance. But how do you develop a PR programme that works at a global level but is still capable of engaging stakeholders locally?
I work on a number of pan-European environmental communications programmes and have become acutely aware of the difficulties associated with tackling this question. The key challenge to overcome is quite obvious - attitudes to environmental issues vary and the media landscape is very different from country to country. If we look at the level of media interest we can see that there is a greater level of interest in some countries than others. In France, over 29,000 articles included the phrase "développement durable" (sustainability in English) in 2009. This compares to 14,000 in the UK and only 6,000 articles in Italy.
The approach to reporting these issues also varies quite widely. In Germany, many initiatives that would be included within a sustainability report in the UK or France are actually a legal requirement and so there is a higher level of expectation. There is also a greater level of scepticism among German journalists who are primed to pick up on examples of greenwashing. In Spain, there is a good deal of interest in what companies are doing to become more sustainable, but because of the difficult economic circumstances, journalists are only interested in policies that are crucial to the overall business strategy and affect the bottom line.
The number of specific media outlets or columns devoted to sustainability also varies quite considerably. In France there are a few high profile slots in the national media devoted to this area. There is a daily section entitled "Green Business" in La Tribune and a weekly green business show on BFM radio. However in Italy, most national newspapers are only just now starting to recruit environmental correspondents.
To be sensitive to the local media landscape, you really need to have local teams on the ground tailoring global messages to ensure that they resonate with people locally. There is an understandable desire to keep all local activity "on strategy", but global teams sometimes display a tendency to become quite pedantic on this point, losing sight of what is really important - delivering results that work in-market. It is important to give local teams a certain amount of freedom to tailor each campaign element for their market conditions. Local plans must of course fit into the overall strategy but it is important to give the teams the freedom to drive the campaign in the most effective way for their market.
However, it is also important not to ensure cultural differences do not become an excuse for inaction. It is far too easy for some local markets to use this argument as a justification for not doing anything pro-active. It is critical therefore to ensure that the onus is put on local teams to come up with solutions rather than focus on all the problems associated with green messaging.
It is right that in this globally connected world, international companies should communicate their sustainability credentials in a consistent way, but to be really effective they need to build in the right level of flexibility to enable local teams to deliver results in their own country. A successful communications programme needs to be relevant and needs to resonate with local audiences. Ultimately companies need to inform, excite and educate stakeholders about their environmental initiatives. Organisations are not going to be able to achieve this if they are too rigid in their approach.
Paul Thomas is an Associate Director at Grayling's CSR, Sustainability & Not-for-profit division