Is the growing power of corporate communications hurting the sustainability press?

Though the media has finally caught on to the news value of sustainability stories, sustainability journalism is hurting. Communications executives are under growing pressure to deliver positive news, and outnumbered journalists feel overpowered by PR. How can both co-exist to advance societal goals?

Journalists at a palm oil plantation question a corporate communications official.
Journalists at a palm oil plantation in Indonesia question a corporate communications executive. Image: Eco-Business

It has become obvious to the journalists in many newsrooms that our jobs are getting harder because of the increasingly bold and assertive behaviour of the communications teams of large companies. 

The pressure to change headlines, rewrite copy, and submit quotes for approval before a story goes to press has grown noticeably, as a rising army of corporate communications professionals engage with more frequency with journalists working in the most image-sensitive sector of the media—sustainability.

Last year was the first time in my career that a communications executive hung up on me over a story we wrote about the company he represents. 

This individual, who reduced a former colleague to tears over another piece we wrote the previous year, demanded that we change our story, including the headline, after accusing two other publications of running “fake news” following a report from a non-governmental organisation (NGO) about his firm. (We ended up changing some of it, but not the headline.)

Every company has the right to defend themselves. And there is always nuance in the reports that NGOs publishnot all of them get their facts right, and most have an agenda to make companies look bad; that’s their business model. And the media more than ever has a duty to present facts and both sides of the story objectively. But has the manner in which communications officers are applying themselves changed?

Bullying journalists is unprofessional. But it works. The next time a journalist comes across a report (usually from an NGO) about the offended company, they’ll think twice about covering it—because they can live without the drama of the fall-out.

There are too few proper sustainability journalists. That says more about what is happening in newsrooms than in corp comms teams. Journalists no longer have the time to learn and seek out balance or expert opinion.

Anita Neville, senior vice president, corporate communications, Golden Agri-Resources

On another occasion, a colleague interviewed an expert for his views on a sustainability standards framework at an event in Hong Kong. In the interview, the expert questioned the effectiveness of these standards. After the story was published, the event’s corporate communications team got in touch with the newsmaker, and leant on him to change his mind. Eventually the story was softened, and the headline changed.

This sort of strategy for tackling negative news does not bode well for how journalists writing about environment, social and governance (ESG) issues go about their work.

Now, more than ever, this region—which is on track to achieve few if any of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals—needs solid sustainability journalism, and that involves holding corporates to account. If we don’t, how will these companies improve?

Governments, particularly in a region where big business and the powers that be are closely linked, cannot be relied on to police the corporations with, in many cases, weak and poorly enforced ESG regulations.

That does not mean that the media should shy away from reporting the efforts companies make to improve their environment and social impact. Even companies with previously questionable environmental and social track records deserve recognition for getting better, don’t they? 

But this also means that when corporate promises are not met, they are called out for it.

This is the reason why we, as journalists, go to work every day, under no illusions that we will ever be rich for doing so. We want to have impact.

But in Asia, a region where only a few countries ranked above 100 in the 2019 Reporters Without Borders (RWB) press freedom rankings, this is getting harder.

According to sources familiar with the media in Japan, where tradition and businesses interests influence the media (Japan ranks 67th in the RWB press freedom rankings for this reason), the press is reluctant to run stories about the country’s banking institutions funding coal-fired power stations overseasJapan is second only to China as a funder of overseas coal power—until the story has been widely covered elsewhere.

The same is true in Vietnam, where coal—the single biggest contributor to greenhouses gas emissions—is very much part of the country’s national development narrative, so the press is often reluctant to write negatively about it.

In Indonesia, which for a Southeast Asian nation has a relatively free press, the developer of a controversial dam project filed a police report against an environmental website that had reported the dam’s threat to a super-rare sub-population of orangutans, according to a source familiar with the matter.

When a company is paying for sponsored content, and investing more in a publication, then its expectations for what journalists write about them increase.

Iain Twine, founder and managing partner, Harrup Advisory

Self-inflicted pain

While corp comms may be outmuscling newsrooms these days, the reality is that it is a problem largely of the media’s own making.

The media industry’s struggle to monetise the stories it publishes on the internet has weakened the position of publishers, who are reluctant to bite the hand that feeds them. 

The companies most likely to spend money with the sustainability press are not typically those with unblemished environmental legaciesAnd as the journalism business shrinks, and Facebook and Google gobble up advertising revenue that would have otherwise supported well-resourced reporting, jobless journalists are defecting to the “dark side”.

Iain Twine, the former regional boss of the world’s largest public relations firm Edelman, who recently founded PR consultancy Harrup Advisory, says that the blurring line between editorial and commercial interests is at the heart of the issue, particularly in Asia, where there are fewer conventions and regulations that keep the two apart.

“When you’re paying for sponsored content, and investing more in a publication, then your expectations for what journalists write about you increase,” he said.

As for the pressure journalists are under, corp comms people are feeling it too.

“Companies are increasingly in the public eye over issues that were previously hidden behind closed doors,” said Twine, who has represented big energy and pulpwood firms over a 20-year career in the communications business.

The growing regulatory pressure on corporates to be more sustainable has pushed companies to want to be seen as more responsible than their rivals, and that creates pressure on corp comms people to generate positive stories, Twine said.

“As the management has just invested so much money in sustainability, they want to get a return on opinion [from the media]. And that creates a tension on the interface between the public, the company and the media,” said Twine.

And to be fair to companies, particularly those under relentless scrutinity, it’s impossible to be perfect in the eyes of a press that has finally woken up to the importance of sustainability issues. 

“There’s always some element of the [company’s] proposition that isn’t quite there, so it’s very difficult to tell a consistent story. You work hard on one element, but on another part you’ll never get anywhere,” said Twine, who added that the media will typically pounce on those weaknesses.

Companies as publishers

Anita Neville, who works for the world’s second largest palm oil company, Golden Agri-Resources (GAR), as senior vice president of group corporate communications, said she remembers a golden era of journalism, when journalists had more time and energy to scope out a story in depth.

A trained journalist, who over her career has worked for green group World Fund for Nature (WWF) and certification body Rainforest Alliance in the United Kingdom, said that journalists such as Charles Clover at The Daily Telegraph, John Vidal and Paul Brown at The Guardian, Nick Nuttall at The Times, Geoffrey Lean at The Independent, and Alex Kirby at the BBC, made her a better communications professional while she was at WWF.

“Are there many of their ilk now? Frankly, no,” she told Eco-Business.

“There are too few proper sustainability journalists. I think that says more about what is happening in newsrooms than in corp comms teams. Journalists no longer have the same time to learn and to really seek out balance or at least expert opinion.”

Neville cites a report by international news group CNN on the forest fires in Indonesia, released in November, as an example.

The special report, a long-form feature titled Borneo is burning, highlighted the impact of the palm oil trade in driving deforestation and forest fires in Indonesia. Neville noted that the story lacked any commentary from a palm oil company, and, in her view, “no real analysis”.

She added that reports from NGOs, which are the foundation of so many environmental stories that gain the most traction in the media, are too often “printed without question” by the press. GAR was at the heart of a damning report from an NGO in October, which implicated the firm in the development of one of the world’s most valuable conservation areas in Indonesia.

“I used to get challenged on our data [when working for WWF] on a regular basis by the aforementioned journos. Where is that now? And frankly it is really hard to get progress or good environmental stories in [the media] as a palm oil company.”

“With a few exceptions, including Eco-Business, which has acknowledged progress [made by palm oil companies] on deforestation in various articles, most journalists I deal with have decided the story before they call us. If they do at all,” she said.

The rise of digital media has allowed companies to publish stories in a way they couldn’t during her time at WWF in the 90s and early 2000s, said Neville.

Back then, NGOs sought a response from the company there were targeting before publishing a report, but the most a company could do to defend itself was to publish a statement.

Now, the proliferation of digital media has enabled companies to become publishers themselves. They put out blogs, webinars, and podcasts to get their side of the story across. GAR is running a content campaign titled Extraordinary Everyday, which features videos of palm oil workers who are hardly ever featured in the ever-raging debate over the impact of palm oil in the media.

“Now if a report [from an NGO] is coming out we can, in real-time, reply with a digital response that includes maps, images and footage, and we can, and have, posted pre-emptive reports that provide our perspective, and we can then communicate that directly to our key stakeholders, including the media,” she said.

Neville admitted that the downside of dealing with self-publishing companies for journalists is that they are faced with another set of data to wade through to produce an objective story.

“Does that equate to killing journalism? Not in my book,” she said.

Bridging the divide

Just as social media, according to critics, has pushed the world further apart, not closer, corp comms folk and journalists are in danger of drifting into polarised worlds of suspicion and distrust.

The head of communications for a big tobacco firm or big oil company is still a human being, as much as journalists are. 

The best corp comms professionals I’ve ever worked with work for “sin industries”, and from memory the most capable comms person I’ve ever met, worked for McDonald’s. She understood what journalists want, and worked closely, and openly, on every step of a story.

So how can the contratemps between corp comms and journalism be fixed?

Twine suggests three things that would help: more balance, access and realism on both sides.

“More balance in accepting that every company is on a journey towards sustainability, but it doesn’t come quickly or cheaply. Better access for the media to get in behind the company. And shared realism on what is likely to be printed.”

“It’s difficult for corporates to engage on this topic if you are going to be hung, drawn and quartered and held to a standard that very few are able to achieve, or at least can’t achieve in one swoop. Especially in tightening economic circumstances,” said Twine.

The remedy is, aptly, better communication between the two sides, to get a better understanding of how we both work, and where are pain points are.

So, we need to talk more.

Email is no substitute for a chat over a coffee or a beer. 

Email and texting have replaced the face-time that is so important in finding the balance in stories.

Which is why the Eco-Business editorial team now has a KPI to get out and meet contacts every week. The best stories do not come from sitting in an office all day.

So, corp comms folk, this is an open invitation. Let’s meet for a coffee (or, preferably, a beer).

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