Review: Communicating Social and Environmental Issues Effectively

About the author

Richard Bailey Hon FCIPR is editor of PR Academy's PR Place Insights. He teaches and assesses undergraduate, postgraduate and professional students.

Communicating Social and Environmental Issues Effectively
By Betsy Reed
Emerald Publishing 2020, 183 pages

B Corps; CSR; ESG. This is a topic full of letters, jargon and acronyms. So ‘sustainability’ has often felt like a stronger umbrella concept, and I’m pleased to see the author assert that sustainability is about both society and the environment. Indeed, she prefers to refer explicitly to ‘social and environmental issues’ to ensure that the topic is widely-understood.

I had worried that the book’s emphasis on communicating social and environmental issues might lead to a gap between rhetoric and action. So it’s good to see the author broadening the discussion beyond communication towards the role of ‘gatekeepers when it comes to spotting risk’. Why? ‘Because … it will not suffice to simply execute a brief you’re handed without first doing a bit of thinking, investigating and considering the risks and opportunities involved.’

‘You can and should play a key role in preventing greenwash, purposewash and other risks caused by communicating inauthentically or even falsely about social and environmental issues.’

There’s a chapter on context, but this focuses on organisations and stakeholders. I’d have welcomed some context on how once-cranky views on the environment and on social issues have become mainstream. Are these trends a threat to consumer capitalism, or is business reinventing itself as the hero rather than the villain of the piece? And what about the gap between people’s stated rejection of fast fashion, factory farming and short-haul flights and the popularity of cheap clothes, fast food and budget flights? Should business respond to what people say they want, or where they spend their money? Is greater change coming from business or from government, or is it led by activists and NGOs? 

The author is from the US, though she’s spent most of her working life in Europe. She’ll accept that the current President of the US is no tree-hugging environmentalist. We know that our government in the UK is set on removing itself from European Union regulations on environmental protection and workers’ rights. Surely this is an important context for a discussion of ‘social and environmental issues’. Yet governments come and go in democracies, and they are focused on four or five year electoral cycles Climate action requires a longer-term focus. Businesses must plan further ahead than politicians.

At its heart, this is a book about stakeholder relationship management. Social and environmental issues are just that – issues. And stakeholder relationships are central to issues management.

If this sounds a dry topic (I might not have bought a book called Issues and Stakeholder Management), the author is keen to remind us that stakeholders are human beings – and so are you. ‘You are communicating to fellow humans who can be inspired, and they can also sense when something is authentic and driven by a human touch and a focus that has taken them into consideration.’

Why are stakeholders so important? The author paraphrases Anne Gregory and states: ‘organizations depend on their stakeholders for their existence.’

It’s a useful and timely book. It’s just a shame the prose is often leaden (‘the PRCA… has an incredible amount of perspective on trends, skills and ethics in the PR industry’), error-strewn (‘A company who makes’) or unclear (‘For each of your stakeholder groups, can you name the top three values and what they might think of the issues you’re communicating of an “avatar”?’)

The author has unquestioned expertise which she shares in this book. Unlike some authors in the PRCA Practice Guide series, she’s noted some academic sources, and cites Freeman’s classic definition of stakeholders (‘any individual or group who can affect or is affected by the actions, decisions, policies or goals of the organisation.’)

Stakeholders have currency and the word has gained wide acceptance since the 1990s, so it’s surprising to see the author make the same case as public relations scholar James Grunig that there’s a distinction between stakeholders and publics (‘“publics” collect around issues that concern them’). This draws on Grunig’s situational theory that posits that dormant groups can become engaged over certain issues and become active publics.

‘Not everyone can be a stakeholder, not everyone will be a “public” and not everyone can be reached all of the time about everything. So, clearly, it’s important to both define stakeholders and “publics” and prioritize them in order to create a plan for when to include them, why and how.’

The next stage is stakeholder mapping (by power-interest); then she follows US ‘pen portrait queen’ Vicki O’Neill in recommending writing up stakeholder personas – pen portraits of each of your key stakeholders. Once done ‘you can then begin to make an educated guess as to what their attitude and receptiveness to the social and environmental issues you’ll be communicating’. 

I’m sceptical about this approach (it sounds too close to the buyer personas used in marketing) but who can challenge the logic of this next statement? ‘Don’t get caught out by failure to remember that you are not your audience and all you need to do to find out what works for them is ask.’

When turning to stakeholders, she makes the distinction between communication and engagement. The distinction is between mere information sharing and the pursuit of relationship outcomes. ‘Engagement is about setting up a guiding strategy, channels and tactics that create a relationship with key stakeholders, rather than settling for old-fashioned, one-way, transmission-style communications that simply informs them (and maybe doesn’t).’

The final chapter pulls together all the lessons from the book into a strategy development process. She emphasises the need to risk assess your ideas in the process described here as a pre-mortem (‘a way of looking ahead to what could go wrong, so you can pre-empt any potential risks’).

Engagement over communication. The need for listening and consultation. The requirement to manage issues and to develop, maintain and monitor relationships with key stakeholders. This book reminds us that there’s so much more to public relations than communication. It’s a book about consultancy and campaign management more than it’s a book about communication.

Complexity and uncertainty: bring it on! This is the time for corporate comms, for ESG consultancy work or for those operating across the risk, issues and crisis management spectrum, and this book is a useful and practical guide for those looking to rise to the challenge.