J500 Media and the Environment

PR Greenwashing and Classroom Whitewashing by vincemeserko

I’m always amazed at the way in which my classes complement one another, build on one another, challenge one another and inform one another. This class always seems to be at the center of those relationships. I’ll give an example. In public relations class we have begun to study effective tactical planning and strategic media use. Naturally, we have looked at real-world examples of successful PR planning. On Monday we watched a short video clip from the mid-1990s? from ABC News. The clip was a short feature story on McDonald’s’ campaign to help poor farmers across the globe find niche goods to sell at market prices in order to prevent them from having to resort to environmentally unfriendly ways of making a living (i.e. cutting down rain forest trees for logging etc.). I’m glad McDonald’s had such a system but it should also be looked at skeptically. I was a little troubled with how this clip was presented in class as representative of the “green branding” of McDonald’s – as if stories placed strategically by effective public relations practitioners make McDonald’s green. In this sense, the perception of social responsibility, the public relations facade, is more important than actually being deeply committed to environmental stewardship. McDonald’s has certainly done some good things, but rarely on their own. It took, for example, a vigilant activist initiative, the so-called McToxins campaign, to get McDonald’s to finally stop using styrofoam packaging. McDonald’s public relations representatives even claimed at one point that styrofoam was good for the environment because it helped aerate the soil in landfills.

My public relations class is committed to the philosophy of “values-driven” public relations (it’s even the name of our textbook), yet this example seems to ignore “values-driven” business. You simply cannot have one without the other. For McDonald’s to be truly “values-driven” they would have to adopt sustainability as a chief corporate interest, as much a part of their national identity as the golden arches logo and the Big Mac. They have hardly reached that point, as Paul Hawken acknowledges in this article from the San Francisco Chronicle.

I’m not trying to rip my public relations class (it’s a really interesting, well-taught class), but it worries me a little bit that this example was used as effective “proactive” public relations. Honestly, “proactive” public relations begins with ethical business, creating a socially responsible culture that values human rights and social justice. Creating that type of corporate environment is in itself good public relations. It’s not manufactured narrow-mindedly. It’s important, in my opinion, to study not just the mechanisms of PR but also learn public relations literacy so students can recognize the agenda’s that underlie the media messages they receive. Combining these two would ensure students are not just good at public relations but more informed and perceptive citizens. I’m trying to make myself more questioning and more aware of where exactly the news I read and see is generated. It’s hard and I’m not very good at it.

So how can we avoid being duped by greenwashing? Improving media literacy? Is calling greenwashing manipulative an overstatement? Is the McDonald’s example truly good PR and I am way off?




6 Comments so far
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I took that same class as you and I remember watching the McDonalds video clip. At the time, I didn’t think anything of it. But now I realize that some companies are trying to turn their green initiatives into publicity stunts. I don’t think you are way off at all. I think that McDonalds was very manipulative, but at the very least, they are trying to make an effort to help the environment. Even if they are doing so just for selfish reasons.


Comment by Lindsay

Lindsay – good point. I don’t necessarily think self-interested profit-seeking businesses cannot implement green initiatives. I’m glad McDonald’s is headed in the right direction. I guess “greenwashing” is a little like “cause marketing” – where companies become champions of specific social causes or non-profit networks. An example would be Lee Denim Day organized in part by Barkley-Evergreen of Kansas City. The event is used to raise money for breast cancer research with the latent intent of selling more pairs of Lee jeans. I guess it’s sad we have to rely on the Lee company for cancer research fundraising, but I’m not going to disparage them for promoting a good cause. I guess it might be more important for people to at least recognize Lee Jeans’ ultimate intent is to sell more jeans. It’s called cause MARKETING for a reason.

I think this McDonald’s example might not be truly manipulative. Misleading is probably a better word. The clip almost looks like a video news release for the McDonald’s Corporation in certain places.


Comment by vincemeserko

I just spoke to Ink magazine about this very thing. All businesses exist within an ecosystem. It is essential to look at the context in which these kinds of PR initatives occur. Clorox introduces a new green cleaning product. That’s great – and what are they doing to make their primary products less harmful (bleach is dreadful for people and the planet). Starbucks sells (and owns) Ethos water which donates a portion of funds to helping children all over the world gain access to clean water – but how much water does it take to process that bottled water, and where does that bottle waste go and what impacts does that have? I could go on and on. I think Vince, what you say about a values-driven business is key. However, I do not think that has to come at the expense of the bottom line. The question is one of balance. And, as you say, of holistic understanding and literacy. Once people are better informed, they make better choices. Our job as communicators is to facilitate and support that process, balancing and supporting small and large changes while being authentic and honest.

Comment by j500

Great analysis, Vince. I agree completely with your assertion of McDonald’s creating misleading green-washed public relations content. Do they completely embrace sustainability? Clearly not.

However, I do see a silver-lining to this (and I believe you briefly mentioned it in your response above). By doing this green-washed PR piece, it is bringing the issue of sustainability to the forefront. Even though what McDonald’s is doing is not nearly enough, it still is great they are leading the way. Now, other businesses will want to one-up McDonald’s and enact an even more rigorous green-washed PR stunt, and so on, and so on. Before we know it, we’ll have thousands of huge companies “embracing” the environment just so they don’t look foolish and backwards thinking.

J.J. De Simone

Comment by jjdesimone

Vince, I agree completely with your assertions.

However, I do see a silver-lining to the whole green-washing issue (and I believe you touched on it above). By being a trailblazer, McDonald’s has set the bar, admittedly not high. But now other companies are going to want to one-up McDonald’s and institute other, more rigorous sustainable practices. Hopefully, by McDonald’s “embracing” the economy, other businesses will be inspired to do the same.

I see this as a good starting point.

J.J. De Simone

Comment by jjdesimone

You’re right — if a company is operating under a values-driven mandate, and strives to be sustainable or green, they have a position from which they can gain consumer trust. Then public relations isn’t a smarmy affair or “green washing” but a legitimate way of pointing out the benefits of a company. Just because BP puts a green and yellow flower as their corporate logo doesn’t make them green; you have to back it up with the actions or else you’ll look like you’re faking it.

As an aside, Vince, consider going into PR for a non-profit foundation — they already do good work so it’s an easy, values-driven position to defend. -Jen Humphrey

Comment by jenh

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