Wednesday’s leak of the Pope’s encyclical on climate change garnered a lot of media attention. One of the shows that dove into the subject was NPR’s On Point with host Tom Ashbrook. It was interesting to hear the callers with such diverse views – those that embraced the message of environmental stewardship, others who see climate change as a fabrication, those who view the capitalist system as fatally flawed and endangering the poor, and those that see capitalism as a way to provide for the world’s poor.
At first glance, the gaps in opinion are too wide and emotions too deeply felt to consider a way to provide a common ground here. And certainly public relations – with its roots in capitalism – would not seem to be the space in which to find that common ground (read here about one of PR legends, Edward Bernays, and his attempts to “bring people’s opinions into cooperation with the goals and interests of those in power.”). However, if we follow the research in this area, there is, indeed, a way to both heed the people’s wishes and achieve the cooperation of those in power. The research I am referring to is Edelman’s Trust Barometer and Pew’s research on attitudes re: energy and the environment. For the past 15 years, the Edelman Trust Barometer has tracked trust in the global institutions of business, government, media and non-governmental organizations. In 2012, the study published a list of 16 attributes that can help businesses build trust - #9 on that list was “works to improve/protect environment.” The subsequent studies continue to show (including the latest 2015 version) that demonstrating societal benefits bolsters trust.
In an online society where authenticity is often questioned, trust is crucial for organizations. Being attentive to what builds trust will create more successful organizations. No matter if organizations serve stockholders or tax payers, Edelman’s research is medicine for their future success – if they’ll take it. At a recent commencement ceremony, Edelman’s CEO, Richard Edelman, advised graduates, “It is what you DO, not what you SAY. You must take dreams and find a way to deliver commercial and societal benefits.” If organizations consider the research and Edleman's advice, they'll put actions at the heart of their strategy. PR must advise their clients against knee-jerk reactions and superficial actions – in other words, deter any hint of greenwashing – and seek real solutions that will be meaningful to society and to their publics.
People are truly concerned with the environment and expect their organizations to share their concern. Even back in 2009, majorities in 23 of 25 countries agreed with the statement “Protecting the environment should be given priority, even if it causes slower economic growth and some loss of jobs.” A more recent study indicated that even the Chinese see “pollution and environmental problems” as the greatest danger.
Pope Francis has, once again, demonstrated his alignment with the people – the environment is a worldwide societal issue, and the research shows that people do care about it. Since public relations is charged with “building mutually beneficial relationships between organizations and their publics" (via PRSA), PR professionals have a duty to counsel their clients to take real and visible steps to reduce their environmental impact and become part of the solution. PR professionals can take the lead for the organizations they represent by developing plans to guide their clients to "enter into dialogue with all people about our common home,” as the Pope encouraged.