Archive for February, 2011

If there is one thing I love more than a good celebrity scandal, it is seeing celebrities step up and take part in the environmental movement. That’s right, they are able to do more than check into rehab. Many celebrities are leveraging their star power to genuinely make a difference.

Celebrities have emerged as opinion leaders and their influence cannot be ignored by PR practitioners and organizations trying to communicate green initiatives. Social media such as Twitter has provided a resource for celebrities to communicate their beliefs directly with their followers. Celebrity value in the non-profit sector goes beyond the charitable giving of celebrities themselves, but further to the visibility that celebrity affiliation can provide.

How much impact do celebrities have on causes?Image Credit: Joel Makower

In 2009, The Daily Beast investigated the unique economic value of celebrity and its effect on charities. Impact rankings were calculated by selecting 50 of the biggest celebrities that are associated with a nonprofit, either as a member of its advisory board, as an ambassador or a spokesperson of a campaign. They took into account not only the direct impact of donations, but also monitored the awareness that celebrities produced for their charity in print, broadcast and online.
The study delivered interesting and mixed results regarding the impact of celebrity. Some generate millions of dollars for their causes, while others deliver miniscule results. For example, Justin Timberlake’s support for his favorite cause is worth $9.3 million. Madonna’s support for Raising Malawi raises nearly $5.5 million. However, with a celebrity impact value of only $538, Paris Hilton “barely makes enough of a dent to justify sending a limo over.”

The real value comes from celebrities that “walk the walk.” It is not enough to affiliate a famous face with an organization. Insincere efforts by celebrities jumping on the green bandwagon to improve their image can contribute to green washing skepticism. It is great to see celebrities using their influence for good, but it is important that they have a true commitment to the cause.

Top Green Celebs

Leonardo DiCaprio – As a member of the National Resources Defense Council, this A-lister has public and political influence. He owns solar panels, a hybrid car and refuses to fly on gas-guzzling private jets. In 1998, he created The Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation to “foster awareness of environmental issues.”

Make It Right Homes

One of the homes built by Brad Pitt's Make It Right Foundation

Brad Pitt– Through the Make It Right Foundation, he built homes for Hurricane Katrina victims that were safe and sustainable. The U.S. Green Building Council declared the development the “largest, greenest neighborhood of single-family homes in America.”

Cameron Diaz – She hosted the launch of Live Earth, an organization that went live with a concert on each continent on 7.7.07 to spread awareness of Climate Change. Cameron reached the American youth in the MTV series “Trippin’.” The show explored different regions and discussed the need for environmental activism.


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The Dirt on Greenwashing

The popularity of the environmental movement has flooded society with corporations claiming to uphold their social responsibility through environmental consciousness. Although it is encouraging to see collective environmental efforts, it has become increasingly difficult for consumers to tell the difference between the companies genuinely dedicated to making a difference and those using green initiatives to increase visibility and brand value.

The capitalistic response by corporations has contributed to public skepticism of greenwashing.  In addition, greenwashing skepticism has created a new obstacle for public relations practitioners communicating environmental initiatives.

Greenwashing Defined

TerraChoice’s 2010 Greenwashing Report defines greenwashing as, ” The act of misleading consumers regarding the environmental practices of a company or the environmental benefits of a product or service.”

Research has shown two-thirds of consumers would change their buying behavior to improve the environment even if it meant paying more for a product. In response to these consumer trends, greenwashing has become pervasive in everyday consumer marketing. The 2010 Greenwashing Report found that there are 73% more green products on the market today than in 2009. Among these green products, more than 95% of these products were found to commit at least one of the seven sins of greenwashing.

Green Guides

Frequency of Sins Committed

Frequency of Greenwashing Sins Committed

The U.S. government has responded to misleading environmental claims by developing the Federal Trade Commission Guides for the Use of Environmental Marketing Claims a.k.a. Green Guides. However, the standards set by the Green Guides often lack effectiveness because there is little enforcement behind them. The responsibility falls upon the organization and PR practitioners to ethically communicate green initiatives.

Implications for Green PR

The public is constantly exposed to corporate campaigns featuring green goals, products and CSR initiatives. Public skepticism has emerged questioning the motives behind environmentally responsible behavior. The prevalence of greenwashing has further contributed to the mistrust asking whether companies are executing environmental campaigns to benefit society or rather to ultimately improve their image to maximize profits. The public has become increasingly sensitive to the thin line that organizations and public relations practitioners must meander when managing these conflicting goals. Greenwashing Skepticism

Communicating green efforts can be particularly difficult when the public is already skeptical of environmental corporate action. The nature of public relations is derived from the notion that communicators must always consider the public to whom they are trying to reach and the environment in which they are communicating. Capitalistic motives and public skepticism are two characteristics that greatly affect both the consideration of the public and context. Therefore, it is vital for communicators to understand greenwashing effects.

In a time of global environmentalism, green corporate acts benefit both society and the planet. However, failure of PR professionals to recognize the influence of perceived organizational motives will further hinder communication of organizational good deeds to its publics.

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There are many things that you can expect on New Year’s Eve. Dick Clark, confetti and the ball drop are just a few. However, nearly 5,000 falling blackbirds isn’t usually in the mix. For Arkansas residents this was a shocking addition to their celebration.

Nearly 5,000 red-winged blackbirds fell to the ground on New Year’s Eve in an Arkansas suburb. Shocking images of the dead birds quickly scattered the internet. The alarming occurrence quickly sparked biblical and environmental conspiracy theories.

Did fireworks cause this bizarre event?

The government quickly released statements that New Year’s fireworks were the cause of the mass death.  The statement had the public scratching their heads with confusion, further putting a media spotlight on the situation.  Adding to the frenzy, 100,000 fish were found dead just 125 miles west of the area where the birds fell days later. The government concluded that the two incidents were completely unrelated.

Is it 2012 Already?

The blogosphere was quick to add to the controversy by classifying the event as the ‘Aflockalypse’.  Biblical conspiracy interpreted the event as a sign for the Mayan prophecy of the world ending. Fueled by the perhaps premature government statement, some questioned the government’s role in the mass death.

How common are mass die-offs?

Although mass bird and fish deaths are tragic and significant environmental events, they are not uncommon. Federal records show that they occur on average every other day in North America. The Associate Press reported that instant communications may be the factor that is making the event memorable.

“Instant communications – especially when people can whip out smart phones to take pictures of critter carcasses and then post them on the internet – is giving a skewed view of what is happening in the environment,” stated  Harvard biologist E.O. Wilson.

Wilson also told the Associated Press that there is a sad irony behind all of the media attention. Mass die-offs – usually of animals with larger populations – create media frenzies while a larger but slower mass extinction of species because of human activity is ignored.

What role did the media play?

Google Maps

A New Google Map Application Now Tracks the 'Aflockalypse'

The media focus on the conspiracy aspect of the event was so strong that it prompted PR Daily News to ask, “What is more terrifying? The mass bird deaths or the media’s coverage of the bizarre incidents?” 

Perhaps the most  unlikely Avian expert to emerge out of the controversy was former child star Kirk Cameron. Cameron, who is outspoken about his religious beliefs was interviewed by Anderson Cooper regarding the bird and fish deaths. Even Cameron seemed reluctant to apply religion to the topic stating, “Call a veterinarian.”

Most recently, the government has concluded that blunt force trauma was the cause of the die-off. Such injuries could be inflicted by telephone wires, transformers or planes.

However, one question still remains – What really caused the ‘Aflockalypse?”  Blunt force trauma or media agenda-setting?

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