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Archive for the ‘PR’ Category

A bit of a mix-and-match today. I guess that’s what you get after a weekend…

1. Bottled Water Wars

Most people know that I’m not a huge fan of the anti-bottled water campaign. I think the campaign is too easy and lack substance and sometimes even just plain light on facts. But sometimes the bottled water people just asks to be hit. You might recall that I wrote about the cool anti-bottled water video by Annie Leonard in a Daily Stain. Well, as expected, the bottled water industry ‘hit back.’ Let’s look at what they had to say, shall we?

First they had to tackle the recycling figures used by Annie Leonard and the team. Annie and team said that 80% of plastic bottles in the United States end up in landfills or are burned in incinerators. Sound pretty awful doesn’t it? So the International Bottled Water Association (IBWA), using different statistics, hit back saying that “water bottles were the most recycled plastic containers in the United States, with a 30.9 percent recycling rate.” Now just hang on a minute here. So they are arguing that 69.1% vs 80% no recycling makes a huge difference? I am sorry, but 30.9% is just as bad a fail as 20%. Pick any one of the two but they both point to one single thing – a failure of recycling plastic bottles. Period. Don’t nitpick percentages when your own figures are so miserable.

The second bit of the IBWA statement that hit me as odd was this beauty: “‘Consumers are really quite thoughtful in selecting and enjoying a safe, healthy, convenient, calorie-free beverage that’s delicious, refreshing and a very smart drink choice.” What would you have thought they were referring to if you read this sentence without knowing the context first? Water right? How about good old tap water? That is a “safe, healthy, convenient, calorie-free beverage that’s delicious, refreshing and a very smart drink choice.” Actually, I would add “almost free” to that sentence if they did indeed refer to tap water and that would make it a very smart drink choice… Sorry IBWA, by using the words “safe” and “healthy” in the same line it seems as if you indirectly hint that either (1) other drinks in plastic containers aren’t safe or healthy (orange juice anyone?) and that (2) water not in plastic containers might not be as safe and healthy. Wrong again. Please refrain from using this line. Either say what you mean and be transparent about what you mean or don’t say anything at all. Hinting has never been the best defense.

The third argument was another open door for criticism. The IBWA said that “bottled water was a necessity – particularly in emergencies like floods, tsunamis and earthquakes.” Mmm… Let’s think about that one. Makes perfect sense. So tell me IBWA, how much of bottled water sold is actually for emergencies like floods, tsunamis and earthquakes? A tiny fraction of the actual total sold. I don’t see a flood or a tsunami or an earthquake hitting any of the people walking the streets right now with the bottled water in their hands. It’s another weak argument where you are trying to twist the argument and not address the real issue. I am sorry – get better arguments as none of the large bottled water companies would survive if they only sold bottled water for use during emergencies.

The bottled water industry’s case wasn’t helped by the UN reporting that bottled water isn’t sustainable – wasting resources and consuming 17 million barrels of oil a year. Ouch… That must have hurt.

Are you surprised that Annie’s video has been watched over 150,000 times and the IBWA one around 300 times? I’m not. Apart from the entertainment value and lack of clear arguments on the side of the IBWA - the biggest reason? Annie and team have no vested interest in this apart from helping the world be a bit more sustainable. Yes they might be wrong in some of their facts and not know the line between fact and fiction as often as we like, but the average Joe in the street knows that the IBWA is protecting their interests and industry while Annie and her team have no money in this game. Values vs Value. And when it comes to story telling – values tend to be more creative and believable.

2.   How responsible is clean tech companies?

We tend to assume that a company that has some inherent goodness in the product must be a good corporate citizen right? And I don’t mean that goodness captured in that burger joint you frequent. Think of the Prius – good for the environment so it must be good. Mmm… Maybe we need to rethink that one. Yes, the Prius is better for the environment than the alternative Hummer but it’s not exactly eco-friendly. Just a tad friendlier. I wouldn’t suck on the exhaust pipe just yet – still emitting some bad stuff, just less than others. And let’s not even talk about how the car is made.

But that’s almost too obvious. How about clean tech companies? Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition just did a study to create a Solar Scorecard. Pretty neat and interesting way to look at companies we assume would be green and clean. As with the Prius, they found that not everything is the way we expect it to be. Some of the companies rate pretty well while others rank low when it comes to their use of toxic materials and broad environmental practices. Neat, but it triggered something else for me.

What about the social impact and practices of these “green” companies? Do we assume that they are great because of the products they produce? Well, just half of them have analyzed the social and environmental impacts of their supply chains, and half also have worker codes of conduct in place with their suppliers. Not so great. Just half have checked that those products that help nature don’t nail people?

Maybe we are forgetting that nature means nothing to humans if humans don’t exist. Saving the earth only has relevance if people can enjoy what is saved. Maybe we should worry about people as much as we worry about the environment. Sure, go hug a tree but when last did you hug a human?

3. Foul smell of NatGeo

Maybe the world economy is really going down the tube when an institution like National Geographic sells it’s brand down the river. I’ve always assumed that National Geographic is all about nature - recording it, protecting it and not selling it. But not anymore. The Guardian ran an excellent piece about National Geographic putting its name next to a few air fresheners. Two broad thoughts on this.

First, and one that really hit the spot, was the names that they gave the air fresheners. One was called Alaska’s Glacier Bay (the others were Japan Tatami and Nevada Desert Flower.) Really? Now how do you capture the natural essence of Alaska’s Glacier Bay? A little bit of Ppg-3 Ethyl Ether, a dash of Parfum, a hint of Linalool, a drop or two of Alpha-Isomethyl Ionone, a handful of Hydroxyisohexyl 3-Cyclohexene Carboxaldehyde, some Hydroxycitronellal, pinch of Geraniol, a little Coumarin, and some Citronellol, Cinnamyl, Alcohol, Limonene and Cinnamal to round it off.

Or as the Guardian puts it, “Mmmmm, I love the smell of Hydroxyisohexyl 3-Cyclohexene Carboxaldehyde in the morning.” Yes… Maybe not so natural.

And it’s a plug-in as well? Pulling electricity from those oil wells in Alaska to power the Alaska’s Glacier Bay? Really silly idea.

But the biggest problem is the National Geographic brand. Who thought this was a good idea? If they tried to sell me a tumbler made from recycled materials or a backpack or some hiking boots then fine. But the Guardian rightly points out that this deal undermines the National Geographic brand and the values people thought it stood for. Really… It smells foul.

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Really people, there are no tigers in Africa. And we don’t have lions walking in the streets of our towns in South Africa. And it doesn’t always rain in England. And Germans do have a sense of humor. And the baseball World Series really do include the best teams in the world. Okay, maybe the last three pushed it a bit too far. But I am really getting sick and tired of ad people getting it so very wrong when they try to paint a global picture. Or when they try to grab the ‘mysterious Africa’ in their ads. I don’t mind them trying to put an African face to it. Hey, I was born in Africa and appreciate it when people use the images of Africa to inspire others. But, really people, just get the basic facts right when you do include Africa or when you try to include an African story into your ad.

One ad that was so bad that I blocked the company name from my mind was up in Back Bay Station in Boston for a few months. (I know it was a financial company.) It tried to tell the story that they can turn the tables on conventional thinking and conventional actions. And one specific ad had a Kenyan Masai (or Maasai) warrior run across the Serengeti. Being chased by a tiger. The ad is trying to tell us that the sometimes the tables are turned, and that they can help you turn the financial tables. BUT the Masai is well known for hunting LIONS for their entry into manhood. LIONS people. NOT tigers. THERE ARE NO TIGERS IN AFRICA. Can someone hunt down the ad guy who had this moment of ‘brilliance’ please. And then feed him to the tigers. Wherever they might be – try Asia as a start…

Sometimes it is simple mistakes. Unknowingly trying to capture a bit of Africa into your product. And that is especially true when the product comes from Africa. Nothing wrong with that. Except when you associate the wrong part of Africa into the product. For example, Teavana recently opened a store close to where I work. (Or I just walked past them almost every day for the last year and never noticed them.) I really like the shop. Good and healthy teas from everywhere around the world. Problem – they have a rooibos tea from Africa. Well, to be more specific, all rooibos tea come from a small area about 100 kilometers from Cape Town. Right at the bottom of Africa. I know this because I come from that area and my brother-in-law still farms with the stuff. The logo that Teavana use is an elephant. You know, elephants are all over Africa. Hum, not really. No elephant at all in that area. None, nada, zilch, zero. Never had any elephant. Never will. But it doesn’t stop there. The bloody elephant they use is not an African elephant. It is an Indian elephant. The smaller ears gave it away, you see. Teavana’s slogan is ‘Opening the Doors to Health, Wisdom, & Happiness’. I am not happy and therefore not healthy. No wisdom to be found in their messy logo for their rooibos. And I’ll close the door with that.

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Corporate Social Responsibility is about what business can do – not about what business must do. It is about opportunities and business benefits – not about obligations or new rules. And the sooner companies develop integrated approaches to identify and react to opportunities the better. And the quicker they put business returns and stakeholders, and specifically the consumer, at the forefront of CSR the better for both them and the CSR business model.

Tangible business benefits are ultimately realized through operational efficiencies (CSR strategy) and effective communications (CSR communications), through PR, advertising, brand, online and other ways to bring the benefits to the consumer and other stakeholders. What is needed is an integrated CSR strategy and communications approach, that is aligned with brand identity and positioning, to effectively engage target stakeholders, especially consumers, and build brand trust, loyalty and affiliation. By working across a company’s different functional areas, understanding and working within the commercial realities of a company, and making stakeholders key, CSR can strengthen and improve the businesses of companies.

CSR strategy development, which is informed by business objectives, market realities and stakeholder input, provides company direction for risk minimization, operational improvements and future growth. This strategy should be informed by and aligned with brand identity and positioning that helps position the company to stand as a responsible and leading corporate citizen – thereby building brand trust, loyalty and affiliation.

CSR communication strategies positively engage stakeholders, specifically consumers, and create on-going dialogue and interaction with the company. This engagement is in turn used to continuously inform strategy, refine brand identity and positioning, and propel continuous improvements creating a cycle of CSR leadership and business benefits.

This integrated approach provides companies with tangible benefits targeted at their own and their stakeholders’ commercial, social and environmental needs as well as the methodology to continuously improve their business, ensure CSR leadership and business benefits, and strengthen brand trust and value – now and in the future.

So, what’s my beef with PR? They play a central role in all this, right? Yes they do. A key role. But my problem is that almost all of them see this as vanilla PR. Yes, they’ll talk about how important it is and say all the right things – remember, they are in PR. But then they will focus on all the philanthropy work of the company – not the operational impacts. They’ll write CSR reports full of beautifully crafted stories of how the company has helped some poor family in Ethiopia, and hardly ever talk about what is material to the company. They’ll pitch the good stuff to the media, but not engage with stakeholders on the bad stuff. They’ll devise participatory employee volunteering schemes, but not talk about the lack of union representatives of the 5% of the workforce that got cut in the last round of ‘streamlining’. And they won’t mention that some workers in the supply chain might be just as bad off as that family in Ethiopia. They’ll talk and talk about the good stuff, because they don’t actually know how the company operates. It doesn’t help that they always talk to corporate communications/public affairs or corporate affairs (take your pick) and hardly ever to product development, HR, manufacturing, logistics, supply chain management or H&S.

One of the experiences that I despised the most while at the International Business Leaders Forum was the PR agencies constantly running to us to help them in their communications of their clients CSR practices. And this ‘advice’ can range from helping them write a CSR report to just telling them what CSR actually means, or just ‘engaging’ stakeholders. But when it came to the client or public, they acted as if they knew everything. Man, they can tell you in so many ways how they can bring the CSR of your company to life – whether you actually have CSR practices or not is irrelevant.

The problem is that PR agencies are geared towards communications. Yes, it might be aligned with the brand or corporate values if you are lucky, but PR agencies know zilch of operations. They will spin you stories on how important operations are, but they know very little of the actual dynamics of business outside communications. PR agencies are good at the communications bit, and consultants are good at the operational bits. But they talk different languages and have very different views on what brings value to the company. PR agencies see the value of CSR as how they can ‘PR’ it. Talk about it, blow it up bigger than what it is and pull off a few gimmicks. But CSR will remain outside of the company and remain without value if you have a PR approach to it. Yes, PR agencies all of a sudden have CSR departments and talk the talk. But have a close look at the people they employ at the CSR unit – PR or political campaigning backgrounds. Not those who have an understanding of operational improvements or even global developmental backgrounds. CSR will remain meaningless if we allow it be driven by PR. It must be driven by both communications and operations. And we need people to understand both. If not, well then we will continue to not bring business benefits AND development gains.

Just look at what consumers believe – they believe everything is spin. And they are not far off when it comes to the role of PR in all of this. And the examples like Wal-Mart and their online strategy is not good stakeholder engagement. But it happens when you drive your CSR through PR communications. PR has a role to play, but they need to get their house in order before they kill off CSR completely.

But don’t worry. PR is not the only guilty one from an agency side. Those consultants. They know nothing of communications. Or actual business benefits. They’ll do your CO2 emissions whether you make cars or plant trees. And design new eco-friendly offices whether you are a financial institution or farmer. No, they’ll sell you anything as long as it can relate to something in your operations. Don’t get me started on them…

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