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«13TH INTERNATIONAL PUBLIC RELATIONS RESEARCH CONFERENCE “Ethical Issues for Public Relations Practice in a Multicultural World” Holiday Inn ...»

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Using data collected in a national survey of the professional group Public Relations Society of America (PRSA), this study examines the way that organizations are communicating about the environment. This baseline study reports on the most common environmental topics that corporations and government entities communicate about, the most common channels of communication used to deliver messages about the environment, the publics most often targeted with environmental messages, the level of transparency in organizations’ environmental communication, and the level of environmental knowledge and attitude among public relations practitioners. The findings suggest a broad range of topics and channels being used for environmental communication. A strong link emerged between public relations practitioners’ environmental knowledge, environmental attitudes, and the volume of communication being disseminated from their organizations. Too, as predicted by the study, organizations that were more environmentally transparent tended to engage in more environmental communication.

Implications of the findings are discussed.



Communication about environmental policies and practices continues to be a critical area of focus for corporations. Organizations’ actions toward the environment have consequences for areas of business that include sales (Sass, 2008) and reputation (Livesey & Kearins, 2002).

Organizations that are perceived as more environmentally responsible are less likely to experience negative consequences from key stakeholders such as activists, governmental agencies and the media (Bansal & Clelland, 2004).

In recent years organizations have been actively engaged in environmental marketing. A number of companies have launched “green” products or campaigns in an attempt to promote their environmental responsibility. However, offering environmentally-friendly products or services is not enough for an organization to be considered environmentally responsible.

Organizations must have sound policies and practices toward the environment and they must communicate those practices in a credible way (Hunter & Bansal, 2007).

This study takes the first step toward understanding how organizations communicate about their environmental policies and practices and how public relations practitioners perceive the environmental responsibility of their organizations. Recently, much attention has been given to environmental behaviors of organizations and the ways corporate processes impact the environment (Bansal et al, 2008). Public relations departments often are asked to take the lead on communication about organizations’ environmental performance and related improvements that the organization is making in this area. Environmental communication is critical to organizations because it can influence the behaviors of publics (Signitzer & Prexl, 2008; Davis, 1995) and build the level of admiration and legitimacy of an organization (Bortree, 2009).

Very little research has focused on the content of environmental communication, the ways organizations are delivering their environmental messages, and no research has examined the role of public relations practitioners in this practice. What is needed is a broad baseline understanding of environmental communication, including content and delivery of communication and the characteristics of the communicators. This study examines environmental communication through a survey of public relations practitioners who have their fingers on the pulse of organizations’ communication. It asks practitioners to report on their organization’s amount, topics, and channels of communication, as well as identify key audiences for the communication. In addition, the study explores characteristics of communicators and examines whether they are related to the attributes of environmental communication.

Results provide insight into the kinds of topics and channels organizations are using to communicate about environmental topics. It identifies potential problems with current practices and offers some suggestions for future communication development.

Literature The amount of environmental communication in the media has increased rapidly over the last four decades (Cox, 2010; Adler, 1995). Research suggests that information subsidies (Griffin & Dunwoody, 1995) and message framing from organizations (Davis, 1995; Reber & Berger,

2005) play a key role in the quantity and nature of coverage of environmental issues. Studies have found that communication about corporate environmental initiatives has many benefits for the organization, including greater legitimacy and admiration of the organization (Bortree, 2009;

Sethi, 1979). Perceived environmental responsibility of an organization affects consumers’ interests in purchasing its products (David et al, 2005), loyalty to the organization, and even greater interest in employment with the organization (Behrend, Baker & Thompson, 2009). As 49 organizations disclose more information about their environmental initiatives, they can garner more respect from their audiences, leading to a stronger relationship (Villiersa & Staden, 2006;

Bortree, 2009). The focus of an organizations’ dialogue about environmental and sustainability issues not only impacts perception of the organization, but it also creates a public space for engagement on environmental issues (Sigtnitzer & Prexl, 2008), and this too is a way for organizations to make a contribution to society though their environmental communication.

The term environmental communication covers a broad area of public and private dialogue on environmental issues (Cox, 2010); however, the study presented here focuses on communication of environmental responsibility by corporations and government entities, as these organizations are experiencing increased pressure to demonstrate their responsibility toward the environment. Organizations have begun to adopt strategies for communicating about key issues including: lowering greenhouse gas emissions, reduction of fuel consumption, recycling, reducing product packaging, reducing waste, conserving water, improving energy efficiency, and offsetting energy usage. The more thoroughly an organization is able to address and discuss its performance in these areas, the more likely it will be effective in persuading audiences that it is working to address its environmental impacts (Bansal & Clelland, 2004;

Hunter & Bansal, 2007; Bortree, 2009). To explore the degree to which organizations are communicating about a variety of topics, the following research question is asked.

RQ1: Which environmental topics are organizations communicating about most often?

The second goal of this study was to explore channels for environmental communication.

Organizations use many channels to disseminate messages to their key publics. Studies of corporate social responsibility have found that organizations commonly use their websites (Ferguson & Popescu, 2007), corporate social responsibility reports (Golob & Bartlett, 2007) and advertising (Chan, 2000) to communicate environmental messages. However, internal documents are also probable channels for environmental messages. What is not known is the most common channels used to communicate about the environment. The following research question is posed.

RQ2: Which channels of communication are organizations using most to communicate about environmental issues?

The third goal of this study was to identify key target audiences of environmental communication. Environmental communication literature has explored the impact of framing environmental issues on consumers (Davis, 1995), but no research has explored the intended audiences of environmental communication. It is possible that organizations do not craft environmental communication primarily to encourage more purchases and/or use of their products and services. Signitzer and Prexl (2008), writing in the Journal of Public Relations Research, suggest that organizations first communicate with internal audiences “so that, slowly, employees get sensitized to the issue and a bottom-up process within the company is able to develop” (p. 8). The authors suggest, in addition, that employees may become key communicators about the organizations’ environmental vision to the public. To explore the audiences most often targeted with environmental communication, the following research question is asked.

50 RQ3: Which publics are most commonly key audiences of environmental communication?

Transparency Organizations that engage in more ethical communication are perceived more positively by key audiences (Freeman, 2006; Gower, 2006). However, research suggests that most organizations are not necessarily engaging transparently in their environmental dealings (Hunter & Bansal, 2007). One way organizations can improve their environmental reputation is through transparent communication about environmental initiatives, impacts, and products. According to Rawlins (2006; 2008) transparent communication consists of four dimensions: participation, substantial information, accountability, and lack of secrecy. Participation is the act of engaging with publics through dialogue and feedback loops; substantial information includes providing enough information for publics to make a judgment about an organization; accountability is acting responsibly and answering for decisions made by the organization; and lack of secrecy is disclosing information and fostering an open atmosphere for communication. In employeeemployer relationships, transparency leads to increased trust in the organization (Rawlins, 2008) which is an important measure in the organization-public relationship. To identify the level of environmental transparency among organizations in this study, the following question is asked.

RQ4: To what degree are organizations communicating transparently about environmental issues?

Most likely, a more transparent organization would engage in more communication about the environment, though quantity would not be the sole measure for transparency; however, it would be one indicator of a commitment to engage with key publics about environmental topics.

To test the notion that more environmentally transparent organizations engage in more environmental communication the following hypothesis is offered.

H1: There will be a strong positive relationship between an organization’s level of environmental transparency and its level of environmental communication.

Practitioner knowledge Organizations that include public relations professionals in their dominant coalition or Csuite benefit from the disciplines’ knowledge of strategic communication, ethics, and crisis management. Prior research has found that a lack of knowledge and skill among practitioners can prevent communication managers from obtaining a coveted seat at the highest level of the organization structure (Moss, Warnaby, & Newman, 2000; Gregory, 2008). It found that to be invited into the dominant coalition, public relations professionals must be knowledgeable about business process and issues of important to the organization. CEOs have expressed a desire for high-level communication professionals to be prepared to function as key decision makers by being knowledgeable about business models and operating environments in which the organizations function (Murray & White, 2005). One of these key areas of knowledge is environmental issues. To assess public relations professionals’ current level of knowledge about environmental issues and their sources of knowledge, the following research questions are posed.

51 RQ5: What is the level of knowledge about environmental issues among public relations practitioners?

RQ6: From what sources do public relations practitioners learn about environmental subjects?

To further explore whether public relations practitioners’ knowledge is related to the amount of communication about environmental issues, the following hypothesis is proposed.

H2: Practitioners with more environmental knowledge will work for organizations that communicate more about environmental issues.

Practitioner attitude Public relations practitioners act as advocates, attempting to guide management decisions to reflect the highest ethical standard of behaviors toward publics. Practitioners who have stronger convictions about the need for their organization to address environmental issues may be more likely to raise issues about environmental behaviors and communication leading for more organizational communication about environmental issues.

The theory of hierarchy of effects (Lavidge & Steiner, 1961; Palda, 1964; Barry, 1987), the theory of reasoned action, and the theory of planned behavior (Ajzen & Fishbein, 1980) note the role of attitude on behavior, but the impact of knowledge and attitude of professional communicators has not been studied. It is likely that a high level of knowledge about a subject and a positive attitude about it would lead to more communication and more enthusiastic communication about the subject. To examine the degree to which participants feel positively about their organization addressing environmental issues, the following research question is asked.

RQ7: How strongly do public relations practitioners feel that their organization should make a priority of environmental issues?

To explore whether there is a relationship between practitioner attitude and environmental communication, the following hypothesis was developed.

H3: Practitioners with a more positive attitude about environmental issues will work for organizations that communicate more about environmental issues.

And, finally, to determine whether practitioner attitude is related to knowledge, the following hypothesis is proposed.

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