‘There is a massive fear factor’: PRs admit to greenhushing pressure from brands
New research has found PRs are being coerced into greenhushing activities by brands. We explore the scale of the issue and what they should do about it.
28% of PR experts say brands have asked them to engage in greenhushing practices / Unsplash
Those ‘silence, brand’ memes have taken their toll on advertisers. Fearful of falling short of public expectations– and of sparking a social media backlash –brands are directing their PR partners to engage in ‘greenhushing’ practices, according to industry experts.
A survey of over 500 PR professionals conducted by Sensu Insight found 70% believed their brand clients were keeping quiet on sustainability issues, while 62% said companies were expected by the public to be ‘perfect’.
Greenhushing is a term used to describe companies deliberately not communicating about environmental initiatives (rather than greenwashing, or making misleading claims about the environmental impact of products).
Over one in four PR professionals (28%) said they had been personally asked to engage in greenhushing practices, and 37% said the practice happened ‘very frequently’.
According to one PR expert, who asked to remain anonymous, “there is a real, massive fear factor” among advertisers. “Even if my clients are doing good things, they worry about putting their heads above the parapet.”
Concerns about an initiative not going far enough for critics, or increased awareness provoking greater scrutiny of a company’s other practices, lay behind the impulse, they said. “They think they might get shot down for something else or not doing enough.”
On the condition of anonymity, another PR insider tells The Drum: “Being seen as imperfect is a legitimate concern. Online discourse… is not a place that takes warmly to trying hard. It’s not a place where doing your best is often enough.”
Companies struggling amid a rough UK economy might also lie behind the reluctance, they add. “Panic about business survival has maybe pushed [environmental issues] down the list of priorities of things to talk about. It’s been a really difficult first half of the year for a lot of businesses and that will change what they want to be seen talking about.”
Staying quiet costs more than just a brand’s reputation
Despite the safety from criticism it might offer, greenhushing practices may mean advertisers lose out on potential public goodwill and brand equity generated by discussing green practices.
Dan Neale, managing director at Alfred – the PR firm which commissioned the survey – said that “there’s a huge lost opportunity in staying quiet.”
“Being more open and honest about a brand’s setbacks and challenges can build trust with stakeholders. And just as importantly, it inspires and guides other brands and businesses towards more responsible business behavior,” he adds.
Duncan Sparke, director of PR agency Man Bites Dog, adds that “greenhushing means people are not only missing out on being able to engage their customers and their own employees with the good work they are doing… it also means they miss out on opportunities to collaborate and coordinate between different companies in the same sector. [Climate change] is one of the biggest problems that companies have ever faced and is something that is only going to be solved with good communication.”
One PR expert tells The Drum that highlighting the opportunity cost was the most effective approach available to those negotiating clients away from greenhushing.
“If you’ve got a good policy you should talk about it. If it’s a genuinely good one, and it does deliver then your team and the market should know about it because it will help in recruitment and the rest,” they say. “Everyone’s got to start somewhere.”
Others advise PR firms to test client claims with their own research – to make sure they’re both true and watertight when subjected to scrutiny.
Katie Eborall, director and head of north for PR firm Grayling, tells The Drum: “We would never encourage clients to go out on the record with a claim, without making sure they can substantiate it and back it up. I would encourage clients to be transparent about what they’re saying. But I wouldn’t necessarily encourage clients to kind of jump before they’re ready.”
She says the company has developed workshop sessions to kick the tyres on sustainability messaging – and often fact-checks brand claims before going public with them.
“We hold workshops with clients to unpack their messaging and their narrative, and the proof points that sit behind it. And we provide clients with examples of best practices, of brands that are really leading by example,” she says. “We’ve got a framework, a tried and tested method, we use for determining corporate narrative and key messaging. It does involve some testing, doing our own research and speaking to the experts within clients’ businesses to get all the facts and make sure what we’re saying is completely doable.”
Sparke, who is also co-chair of the Chartered Institute for Public Relations’ ESG panel, adds: “PR professionals need to upskill in sustainability. At the moment there’s this view that we are the we’re the mouthpiece of the businesses that we represent, but that we’re not experts. When it comes to greenhushing or greenwashing, you need to be an expert. You can’t rely on other people to get that right for you.”
The body has been staging a series of webinars aiming to help PR professionals “upskill” their knowledge of sustainability issues and regulation. He adds: “If we can demonstrate we know what the regulation looks like, that we know how to avoid greenwashing, that we know how to be accurate and correct in everything that we say, then we’ll build that trust. And businesses will be confident in us being able to say the good things that we can back up.”
He also suggests increasing knowledge of legal restrictions and liabilities associated with environmental claims. “The biggest thing someone in the PR world can do in order to be able to do good marketing is form a healthy working relationship with the legal department. Legal gatekeepers are the most important people to get on side.”