New Study Reveals How PR Practitioners Can Drive Environmental Change

The results of a recent study* among PRISA members has confirmed that communicators have immense power to shift environmental attitudes and influence pro-environmental behaviour. To harness this power, however, PR professionals should assume a more vital role in creating and sustaining longer-term stakeholder relationships that will benefit the earth, its people and the organisation.

Sobering Statistics

The study found that most PR professionals surveyed are aware of general environmental issues and the power of their communications to drive change.

A convincing 95% of respondents believe that a major ecological catastrophe is inevitable if environmental behaviours remain unchanged.

The vast majority (90%) also believe their organisation’s reputation could benefit from more environmentally responsible behaviours and of thosewho have beeninvolved in an environmental communication campaign, 72% believed that a shift in attitude took place.

Challenges Revealed

Yet, there are some challenges constraining PR professionals from fully harnessing their ability to make a positive difference.

The fact that more than half (53%) are unsure or don’t believe their company to be communicating transparently about its environmental impact shows that chief among these challenges is a lack of trust and transparency when communicating environmental impacts.

Another challenge is the lack of balanced stakeholder engagement, sustained dialogue and participation, as evidenced by the fact that respondents report that 84% of environmental communication is targeted at employees, with little attention to publics, government and environmental activists, and focussed mostly on one-way channels.

These challenges are further exacerbated by the fact that there is limited understanding and knowledge of complex environmental issues and processes. This is evident from the reality that the majority of respondents source information from websites and social media – with just 16% sourcing their environmental knowledge from a reputable academic or training institution! It is not surprising then that 42% are unsure or do not know what ‘greenwash’ or ‘greenwashing’ is.

Greenpeace defines ‘greenwashing’ as ‘misleading consumers regarding the environmental practices of a company or the environmental benefits of a product or service’, through unsupported, false and misleading environmental claims.

These issues could result in communicators unintentionally misleading consumers with environmental claims that are false, deceptive, ambiguous or inaccurate, affecting an organisation’s reputation and bottom line, and reducing pro-environmental behaviour.

Keys to success

These study results further point to the keys to overcoming these challenges, detailed below.

  • Increased Environmental Education and Training – Knowledge and training will equip public relations professionals to effectively communicate about environmental issues, verify claims and to mitigate ‘greenwashing’.
  • Balanced Stakeholder Engagement – Effective engagement and dialogue with a balanced representation of key publics will not only enhance the company’s reputation but also ensure environmental messages reach all relevant recipients successfully, helping to shift attitudes and encourage pro environmental behaviour.

  • Two-Way Mixed Method Communication Approach – Public relations practitioners and communication professionals should focus on using communication channels that allow engagement, responses and feedback to create and sustain relations and build trust with key publics.
  • Legislation Addressing Greenwash – Existing legislation does exist against unfair, false and misleading marketing and advertising claims, but should be extended to protect consumers against vague, unsupported, false and misleading environmental claims.
  • Monitor and Measure Environmental Attitudes – Understanding environmental attitudes can provide a clear and specific understanding of stakeholders’ environmental consciousness and concerns and help to streamline and target messaging strategies.
  • Develop a Culture of Listening – A culture of listening creates opportunities to identify the needs and wants of publics, to understand their environmental attitudes and to gather information that can reveal and assess current and potential environmental opportunities.

Into the future

This study was inspired by a quote from Mahatma Gandhi:

You must be the change you want to see in the world.”
– Mahatma Gandhi

As public relations practitioners and communication professionals, we have immense power to shift environmental attitudes and influence pro environmental behaviour – as well as set standards and establish benchmarks for responsible communication – through the process of managing how, when and in what way we communicate. The actions behind our words will be the catalyst to environmental change.

Download a copy of the poster presentation

To download a copy of the poster presentation that was exhibited at PRISA’s Research Colloquium, please visit

*Barter, A.T, and Theron, F. 2019. Shifting Environmental Attitudes And Influencing Pro-Environmental Behaviour Through The Process Of Managing How, When And In What Way We Communicate. School of Public Leadership. Stellenbosch University.