PR professionals get a lot of flak. We're too often regarded as used car salesmen types whose job it is to skate around the truth, push platitudes on the public and block people's access to the big muckymucks who make important decisions behind closed doors. On the political left, we're vilified for serving the interests of nasty corporations. On the right, we're pooh-poohed for filling the ranks of swollen government agencies. Either way, PR people can't seem to win the war of public opinion, ironic as this may be.
For more on the stereotypes that bedevil the PR profession, read this article from Ragan's PR Daily.
Like most stereotypes, there are elements of truth to the above. Yes, PR people are beholden to the mission objectives of their employers, which, in the case of major corporations, is to generate profit for the company and its shareholders. And yes, PR people do act as gatekeepers for the top dogs - if for no other reason because no CEO in the world could ever personally communicate with all publics and stakeholders. Our job is to provide communications support and part of that is protecting the higher-ups from exposure to potentially damaging situations. Without that, major organizations wouldn't be able to function.
While some of the clichés are at least in part true, it is equally true that PR professionals do a lot of good in the world. In the post-Enron, post- Lehman Brothers world, corporate social responsibility is being taken much more seriously by the world's leading corporations. And corporate social responsibility is inextricably tied to the PR profession, not only in the communication thereof but in creating such policies in the first place. Name any positive corporate or government-led initiative in modern history, and I guarantee you there's a PR strategy behind it.
One such area is the Green movement. Sadly, these days the ecological movement seems to have lost its way, at least in this country. The current government of Canada has made it pretty clear on numerous occasions that the environment is not a priority, through everything from withdrawing from the Kyoto Protocol to muzzling climate scientists to denouncing oil sands critics as 'radicals'. And here in Alberta, there was barely any mention of environmental issues during the recent leaders' debate - this in spite of the fact that the province remains at the eye of the storm of one of the biggest eco-controversies of our time.
Nevertheless, I hold out hope that the tide will turn once again. It has to. Our planet is warming up, our resources asre being depleted at an alarming rate and ecosystems are on the verge of collapse. And when that tide does turn, it's pretty much guaranteed that it will be public relations people leading the way behind the scenes. Some of the most beguiling PR campaigns in recent history have been for ecological causes. While environmentalists the world over have a reputation for being angry, deliberately confrontational pitbulls, the campaigns I've outlined here have all the hallmarks of good PR - non-confrontational calls-to-action that manage to balance feel-good populism with a sense of urgency.
Some of them are pretty entertaining too, which also helps.
The Easter Bilby
Organization: The Foundation for Rabbit-Free Australia
Objective: To increase awareness of the threat to Australia's ecosystem posed by feral rabbits by way of an alternative to the Easter Bunny.
The introduction of rabbits to Australia in the 19th century stands as one of the country's biggest ecological disasters. The total damage caused by rabbits in terms of plant and animal species loss has yet to be determined but is believed to be widespread, and the invasive mammals have caused severe soil erosion and have cost the country's agricultural sector untold millions in crop damage. Various measures ranging from fences to biological agents have been enlisted to cull the continent's rabbit population, but the bunny plague remains a formidable threat to the country's ecological health.
The concept of the Easter Bilby as an indigenous Australian counterpart to the Easter Bunny was first proposed in 1968 in Rose-Marie Dusting's children's story Billy The Aussie Easter Bilby. In 1991, the Foundation for Rabbit-Free Australia embraced this character as a means of depopularizing rabbits in the popular imagination. "Very young children are indoctrinated with the concept that bunnies are nice soft fluffy creatures, whereas in reality they are Australia's greatest environmental feral pest and cause enormous damage to the arid zone," said a spokesperson for the foundation says.
Slowly but surely, chocolate bilbies have come to replace the traditional bunnies on Aussie shelves at Easter time, and given the extensive international coverage the campaign received this year, it seems to be making a breakthrough.
Aim: To increase awareness of collapsing honey bee population and promote action aimed at protecting bees.
In late 2006, reports began surfacing of an epidemic of 'colony collapse disorder' among honey bees in North America and Europe. In some places, reports of collapsing bee populations greater than 50 percent were reported in 2007, raising alarm about the possibility of honey bee extinction. Various explanations were proffered for the CCD outbreak, ranging from various insect viruses to a loss of genetic diversity through selective breeding to electromagnetic radiation from cell phones. All experts, however, agreed that declining honey bee populations was a dire ecological problem as well as a direct threat to much of our human diet.
Then, in early 2008, in came the ice cream manufacturers Häagen-Dazs with their Häagen-Dazs Loves Honey Bees (stylized as HD♥HB) campaign. With the stated goal of increasing awareness of the honey bee issue, the campaign website encouraged consumers to plant bee-friendly habitats with a first-year goal of planting 1 million bee-friendly flowers while providing a storehouse of information on bees and their centrality to much of the food human being take for granted. Further, the company's 'Buy a Carton, Save a Bee' campaign helped raise considerable capital for honey bee research.
The campaign was an emormous success - both for the company and for the honey bee cause. While CCD remains a serious problem, considerable research is being done on the subject and, thanks in no small part to Häagen-Dazs, awareness of the problem is widespread.
Organization: The Metropolitan Government of Seoul
Aim: To curb citizens' consumption of bottled water by way of promoting the safety and health benefits of the city's tap water.
The latter half of the 20th century saw the Republic of Korea embark on a spectacular trajectory of economic growth that catapulted the country's living standards from sub-Saharan African levels in the 1960s to western European and North American levels by the 2000s. Nevertheless, some of the country's basic services - most notably its water infrastructure - failed to keep pace with the country's overall modernization, and as recently as 2000 the tap water in Seoul and other major cities was still considered unfit for human consumption. However, by 2007, the city of Seoul announced with much fanfare that the city's tap water was 100 percent safe for drinking. Unfortunately, very few citizens believed the announcement - and continued to buy bottled water at an alarming rate.
The Seoul Municipal Government responded with an aggressive PR campaign aimed at discouraging consumption of bottled water by touting the virtues of the city's water supply. In a campaign that mixed environmental consciousness with high-tech sheen and a dose of patriotism, the city rebranded its water 'Arisu' (a classical Korean word meaning 'Big River'), advertised it relentlessly on television and on billboards and famously held blind taste-tests featuring Seoul's Arisu water and popular imported bottled water brands.
While old habits die hard and many Seoulites are still reluctant to drink directly from the tap, the city's water PR campaign was accoladed by international organizations and has become a symbol of Korea's capital city. And while the city has prohibited the sale of Arisu for export (which would kind of defeat the purpose), it was supplied to earthquake victims in southwestern China and most recently northeastern Japan as part of South Korea's disaster relief efforts.
Organization: Marks & Spencer
Aim: To promote sustainability and position Marks & Spencer as the UK's greenest retailer.
In 2007, the British retail giant Marks & Spencer embarked on one of the most ambitious environmental CSR campaigns in history. Called 'Plan A' (with the tagline "Because there is no Plan B"), the campaign sought to dramatically increase the company's environmental sustainability within a five-year period. Unlike the aforementioned campaigns, Plan A covered a whole range of environmental targets, including achieving carbon neutral operations, curbing waste sent to landfills, extending sustainable sourcing, helping improve the lives of people in their supply chain and helping customers and employees live healthier lifestyles.
As of August 2008, the company had three wind turbines in operation, generating enough power to supply three stores via the UK's national grid. In April 2009 the company began purchasing 2.6 TWh of renewable energy from Npower, enough to power all Marks & Spencer stores and offices in England and Wales. It also introduced a number of schemes aimed at discouraging the use of plastic bags and encouraging consumers to return plastic clothing bags and hangers. Ironically, the 2008 market crash and subsequent recession proved to be a major boon for the campaign at a time when most companies were quietly discarding green campaigns, allowing M&S to differentiate itself in its dogged commitment to green practices.
The campaign continues to this day, with new M&S chairman Sir Stuart Rose having personally committed to reducing non-glass wastage by 25 percent and plastic bag usage by 33 percent.
Organization: The World Wide Fund for Nature (Australia)
Aim: To raise awareness of the need to take action on climate change and encourage energy conservation.
The venerable advertising firm Leo Burnett Worldwide has run ad campaigns for a wide range of major corporate brands over the decade, including a number with less than salubrious reputations such as McDonald's and Philip Morris. Nevertheless, the company can be given credit for one of the most recognizable and successful worldwide environmental campaigns to date, which was launched for the first time in Sydney, Australia in 2007 with a view to "engaging Australians on the issue of climate change" by emphasizing the issue of energy conservation.
The first international Earth Hour was held the following year on March 28 from 8 p.m. to 9 p.m. local time, whereupon people in over 400 cities in 35 countries turned off their lights for an hour to conserve electricity. By 2011, that number had grown to a record 5,251 cities and towns in 135 countries and territories in all seven continents. Interestingly, enthusiasm for the campaign has been particularly pronounced in developing countries. In Vietnam, the country's electricity demand fell 400,000 kWh during Earth Hour 2011 and the country managed to save US$23,809 thanks to the saved power.
While Earth Hour has its critics, including Jeremy Clarkson, host of the BBC's Top Gear, who claims to make a point of switching on every single appliance in his home during the hour, Earth Hour has helped bring the issue of energy conservation to the forefront at a time when environmental campaigns have taken a back seat to economic worries.
Organization: The Discovery Channel
Aim: To create a better public understanding about sharks and disspell negative preconceptions about the species (and increase ratings in the process).
If there was ever an animal badly in need of a PR overhaul, it's sharks. Vilified as man-eaters in the Jaws movies and countless other cheeseball flicks, sharks have long been a feared and misunderstood species. While anti-whaling activism beginning in the 1970s helped bring many endangered whale species back from the brink, sharks have enjoyed no such popular support and to this day many of the most iconic shark species - including the dreaded great white - remain vulnerable if not endangered, and one out of five species are close to extinction.
With a view to encouraging awareness and improving the image of these important pelagic predators (as well as increasing its ratings), the Discovery Channel launched a week-long series of television programs dedicated to sharks in July of 1987. What began as a TV special evolved into a full-fledged PR campaign, and by 2010 over 30 million viewers were tuning in to Shark Week. As a PR campaign for sharks, Shark Week deftly combines Hollywoodesque gratuitousness with education and ecological calls to action, most notably on the issue of the cruel practice shark finning for the worldwide sharkfin soup industry.
While shark populations remain vulnerable worldwide, Shark Week has proven to be a powerful counterforce to the Jaws phenomenon in the 1970s and 80s. If the popular portrayal of sharks in recent animated movies like Finding Nemo and Shark's Tale is any indication, these vilified animals are finally starting to get some love from the public. And the shows are now available at anytime courtesy of the Discovery Channel's Shark Week website.
Happy Earth Day, everyone!