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December 29, 2009
As we edge away from what Time magazine called "the decade from Hell" and plant our feet on more favorable, if not exactly heavenly, economic grounds, communicators in C-suites will need to rethink their corporate greening options and reputation.
As always, the goal of chief communications officers will be to keep creating stakeholders who invest in, buy from, supply to, work for and otherwise help the company achieve its success mission.
My suggested formula for corporate sustainability continues to be strategic balancing of financial, social and government accountabilities.
But therein lies a tale as the decade dawns.
Economic and political factors spawned by the descent into near-depression have significantly changed the green respect game, with major implications for chief communicators.
In one way, which touches the realm of unintended and in fact weird consequences, the national economic dive gave profit-suffering companies a somewhat brighter green halo.
Company layoffs and shutdowns in unprofitable American operations usually mean less pollution, now importantly including airborne carbon emissions, from those operations.
This tends to reduce pressure from regulators and green activists.
It may conveniently provide the company with a shade greener data in tallies such as the Carbon Disclosure Project by which a great many companies are judged on their social responsibility.
Corporate messaging in 2010 will need to adjust to acknowledge these pollution and energy-use reductions without setting a trap for future reports when the business regains muscle, and exhales more emissions.
More spine-cracking will be the adjustment to communications impacted by government influence.
Green Money Flows to Business
While media and public attention will stay on federal influence in a relatively few companies' operations and compensation packages (and the intense effort by these companies to shake off the shackles), there is another story that is potentially more widespread and troublesome.
That is the infusion of federal money into clean technology.
Billions of green-energy and clean-technology dollars will pour from Washington coffers, eventually benefitting thousands of companies, large and small, to encourage energy efficiency and to curb what the Obama Administration is calling "carbon pollution" (a term I have a problem with because it is not actually about pollution as we have long known and understood it, but I have to admit it is clever and effective branding).
I have no doubt that a lot of my friends in corporate communications are already scrambling to help their business units shape appeals to Washington agencies for funds to support their specific technology ideas, and to surround these appeals with appropriate messages to stakeholders.
This communications scramble is important because an open, transparent public conversation is inevitable about how this taxpayer money gets spent and what the realizable benefit will be for citizens as well as business stakeholders.
Complicating this condition is political reality.
Politicians — elected by political process and representing stakeholders — are tightly involved with how the green dollars are spent and especially with whether they create green jobs.
One case in point: an Irvine, CA company asked the Department of Energy (which sits on the biggest pots of clean-tech stimulus) for $170 million from DOE's advanced technology vehicle loan program to build a high-efficiency auto. DOE stalled when it learned the product would be assembled overseas. While using U.S. parts, it would not boost U.S. workers.
The end of this story is that the Obama Administration, Capitol Hill Democrats and the governor of Delaware got involved and moved toward a deal that the loan would go through if the product is assembled in a Delaware plant being shut down by General Motors.
'Great Green Hope' Deferred?
A New York Times writer in 2009 called job creation the "Great Green Hope" of the Obama Administration, effectively the acid test of the stimulus experiment.
As the Hellish decade closed out, too many of the green-energy, green-jobs messages were White House downers.
Government and business sources in November and December fed gloomy news from Pennsylvania, where a wind turbine plant cut its plans for green jobs; from Delaware, where jobs were shed at a GE solar panel plant; and from Massachusetts where the management of a company set up to make solar power products instead provided salt-in-the-wound news that it would move its operations to China.
Proving and responding to the changed game, President Barack Obama and DOE Secretary Steven Chu have become spokesmen for corporate greening and jobs creation.
When an advanced, alternative-energy vehicle application from an old-line American company, Navistar (once International Harvester), was approved by DOE, both Obama and Chu went to the Navistar facility in Indiana (a jobs-deficient, politically-abundant state) to participate in the company announcement.
Navistar later followed up, taking its job-creating, renewable energy message to Capitol Hill for a Washington news conference featuring Indiana Sen. Evan Bayh and photo-ops for congressional people alongside a prototype of the DOE-endowed all-electric truck.
VCs Join DC Investors
Private-fund forces are another key to the game-changing greening dynamics for 2010 and beyond.
As I discussed in my book written a year ago (see Corporate Greening at www.envirocomm.com), successful dotcom era investors like Vinod Khosla (a founder of Sun Microsystems), Elon Musk (cofounder of PayPal), Larry Page of Sergey Brin (Google cofounders) have been itching to put money into the green game.
Their natural technocratic excitement has taken root in energy and climate change notions, with visions of new business blockbusters.
The excitement was tempered by the economy, but Cleantech Group chair Nicholas Parker says venture and private equity capital in clean-tech will soar in 2010. "Watch for more blockbusters like Khosla Ventures' September (2009) $1.1 billion new fund announcement," Parker said in his year-end blog. (See http://cleantech.com/news.)
Venture capitalists and mainstream investor funds want to hear that they can place bets alongside incentives that government has put on the table favoring their target companies.
DOE prefers evidence that it is backing companies that already have substantial private funding, with the hope that stimulus dollars will add momentum.
Who-goes-first negotiations could delay or confuse public understanding and stimulate political involvements in contract awards.
This clearly is a place for corporate communications to work with top management, their business unit and technology leaders as well as government relations to make sure investor relations messages are clear, and, if necessary, to engage stakeholders in grassroots support for government action.
Uncertainties and Communication
Let me close with the obvious: This year needs a green transfusion.
The "great green hope" of jobs is crucial to lifting local, national and global economics and stakeholder confidence.
American-based companies will be the recipients, the influencers, the players in the changing green game.
Corporate communicators will have a set of greening challenges and opportunities at least somewhat different than they've dealt with before.
Three uncertainties — the hellish bane of corporate communications — overhang this prospect.
- One, with (a) the Copenhagen climate agreements kicked down the road, (b) the battle over healthcare concluding with a massive price-tag, and (c) 2010 a congressional election year, will the Democrats in Congress go after climate change (especially with its costly cap-and-trade formula) — and if cap-and-trade is no-go, what's the price of a ton of carbon and where is the future government money coming from that was supposed to come from permit sales, and what does this do to companies who are already voluntarily into carbon-trading schemes?
- Two, can DOE and other federal hand-out sources actually move enough money into the system and then have the state, city, county and academic recipients put it to productive economic use in 2010?
- Three, will stakeholders, starting with investors, be convinced to stay with (or go toward) companies that show they are positioned to beat the competition in the corporate greening game?
So, hello, new green decade, maybe close to Heaven — provided that companies have ongoing, honest, productive conversations with stakeholders, based on a practical grasp of the financial/social/political dynamics, that position the firm as a competitive winner.
That...and of course a little bit of luck.
— E. Bruce Harrison
December 29, 2009
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