PR is not something you would generally associate with corporate social responsibility. Public relations is about generating public attention, putting a positive spin on events, saving reputations, and putting out fires. It’s not about saving the world, surely?
Maybe not, but PR companies can keep their clients on the straight and narrow and they can inspire positive change.
Greenwashing and positive spinning vs. conscience
As an industry, public relations has got a bad rap for greenwashing their clients’ commitment to sustainability – corporate or social. No doubt there are some people out there who think nothing of embellishing (or fabricating) details that show their clients in a positive light, but this isn’t the norm.
At least this is according to a study by researchers from Baylor University and the University of Texas – Austin, which was published in the Journal of Mass Media Ethics. The study is called “PR Professionals as Organizational Conscience” and it attempts to show that PR is inherently ethical – but only if it’s done in the true spirit of the industry.
According to the study, the personal attributes of PR professionals influence their clients’ ethics, and the more formal professionals’ education (and their association with professional associations) the more ethically they are likely to behave.
Moreover, it seems that clients are starting to trust their PR companies beyond the scope of traditional public relations activities and are asking for help in identifying and managing ethical challenges.
Following the World Economic Forum held towards the end of January 2013, Andrew Last (the Guardian) posed the question: can PR professionals speed up sustainable actions by organisations (and countries) around the world? Can they, in fact, spur positive change?
It appears that the answer is yes, but that poses another question: How?
Last suggests that PR companies encourage their clients to make public their sustainability intentions as soon as possible because this obligates them to make good on their intentions. A clear message is also necessary because it not only commits them to action, but it also shows their employees that they are serious about change – which inspires employees to be part of the change.
This is where public relations excels, as its primary role is to deliver messages – external and internal messages.
The key is to do this without venturing into greenwashing. If they’ve done their job properly, however, public relations professionals won’t have to resort to greenwashing because their clients will be committed to making very real, very ethical changes to their environmental and social sustainability projects.