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7 Public Relations Tools You Can Use to Promote Sustainability

After acquiring a masters degree in sustainability, Sustainable Sue worked & now writes to help create change in U.S. business practices.

You have a cause, now let's get the word out.

You have a cause, now let's get the word out.

Let's Get the Word Out

In my work as a political activist I've come across a wide variety of ways to interest the public in supporting issues like earth stewardship and sustainability. Here are some that I found effective and easy to set up.

What is Public Relations?

Public relations is the process of developing and maintaining a favorable public image. Usually it refers to making certain people or organizations look good. When applied to ideas, concepts, or projects, these same actions are called "promotion."

Promotion is used to generate sales, public relations to generate respect and support. The techniques used are similar. This article shows seven ways to use public relations to spread the value of sustainability practices and good earth stewardship:

  1. Set up a nonprofit
  2. Utilize the arts
  3. Sponsor a local community project
  4. Staff a booth at fairs
  5. Host or join a protest
  6. Hold the media to account
  7. Support government programs
Get some people together who love nature and start a nonprofit. Name it something related to your passion—it could be water-related, cleanup, planting, or passage of legislation. Promote it and who knows how big it could grow?

Get some people together who love nature and start a nonprofit. Name it something related to your passion—it could be water-related, cleanup, planting, or passage of legislation. Promote it and who knows how big it could grow?

1) Set Up a Nonprofit That Supports Your Issue

Companies and individuals have long known that setting up a nonprofit group in their name is good for public relations. Most foundations benefit society (or individual components of it) by helping those in need—like combatting disease or helping students looking for scholarships. Others set up nonprofits to prevent needs from occurring in the first place, thereby changing society for the better in the long term.

You can best encourage the practice of sustainability by starting a nonprofit of that type. Whereas you may start out small, serving your own local area, your project could expand beyond your dreams, as it meets the needs of other locations too.

That's what happened with the Arroyo Seco Time Bank. When I first became involved with the fledgling time bank in the Pasadena area, they were developing software that would keep track of hours spent, so buyers and sellers could trade goods and services without using money. I joined in 2010 to offer computer skills in exchange for massage and hair styling (or whatever else I needed at the time).

The time bank quickly caught on. As users in neighboring areas started to join, it grew to cover the entire local region. Then it expanded again to include the city of Los Angeles and smaller cities between, eventually becoming the biggest time bank in the country.

Some local time bank members set up a related Repair Cafe, where the public could get torn clothes and broken appliances fixed for free. It attracted people in the city who didn't like the typical American throwaway culture. Instead, an ever-growing community formed of people who prefer to repair dysfunctional objects, rather than buying new ones.

Once you start a nonprofit of your choice, you can then promote it by teaming up with similar nonprofits in the area. These two organizations cross-promoted their services, so both grew together. My environmental group, the Green Council, invited representatives to introduce the projects to our members and others supportive of environmental issues.

"Mother Earth vs. the World's People" was a fun play to put on, and was well received with a standing ovation. Here we are reading the script for the first time.

"Mother Earth vs. the World's People" was a fun play to put on, and was well received with a standing ovation. Here we are reading the script for the first time.

2) Utilize Drama and the Media

The media loves drama and well-known individuals are well aware of it. Sometimes they deliberately associate themselves with (or even create) dramatic events to attract the media and public attention to their favorite cause. This technique is successful because it fuses emotion with information.

"Mother Earth vs. the World's People" is an informational, fun comedy about taking care of the environment. My environmental group cosponsored this play at our church, some of us acting in it as well. It generated lots of support for the work we were doing.

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In the play, characters representing various declining aspects of the environment take "the people" to court for abuse. I played a polar bear worried about ice packs disappearing in the arctic, lamenting on how I would feed my young.

We performed the play at a Sunday service in lieu of the sermon, thanks to the accommodation of our minister. Everyone who acted in it learned something new about global warming, while everyone in the audience saw friends and family giving out a message they could relate to.

Well-known musicians and actors have done the same thing—creating songs and events that promoted their cause. USA for Africa's "We Are the World" is one such example. Artists also use their art to project issues they care about.

Many people who have become strong advocates have created their own productions - movies, plays, or videos. Think of Michael Moore and Al Gore (with rapper Coolio). Most good actors have performed in stage shows or movies that promote issues of various types, or have joined and promoted their issues via non-profits: Robert Redford with the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation are two good examples. By contacting them, you can sometimes recruit them to your cause . . . or join with them in their cause.

Writers spread the word via plays, movies, and stories they write, including children's books. Think of Rachel Carson's "Silent Spring," which changed the world's view on pesticides, or the children's books "Where the Wild Things Are" by Maurice Sendak and "The Lorax" by Dr. Seuss, recently made into a movie.

And visual artists and photographers have long been known for promoting environmental issues in their works. One good example is Ansel Adams and his incredible nature photos. Some artists are even blending mediums to create unique pieces about the environment.

3) Sponsor a Local Community Project

Many companies make it a point to aid and strengthen the community in which their headquarters and/or manufacturing facilities are located. Some give local scholarships, some promote local events, some give grants for local projects. Starbucks is one such company.

Around the corner from the Starbucks I used to frequent in Pasadena, California, there is a homeless shelter. Street people from there used to hang out at the Starbucks for hours at a time, until regular patrons started complaining.

I once talked to the manager about sponsoring a community garden for homeless people, rather than coldheartedly kicking them out. The garden could be like the Altadena Community Garden that already existed in neighboring Altadena. Someone could train the shelter's inhabitants to work in the garden, giving them a new sense of purpose and a new start in life.

Starbucks didn't go for it—too much work to get the city to grant them land, and no one to do the work necessary. In other locations, Starbucks does support school gardens.

Community gardens help provide healthy food for city areas and build a sense of community.

Community gardens help provide healthy food for city areas and build a sense of community.

In Pasadena, the church I attended was already helping low income schools with annual maintenance—painting and cleaning their hallways and classrooms. We decided to also promote sustainability by establishing school gardens. A team of us (including teachers and students) dug, installed drip irrigation, and planted vegetables and drought tolerant bushes. The church bought tools to leave with the schools, so students could continue maintaining the gardens. Every year we covered one more school.

All over the world there are projects like this that could be developed by someone willing to take action. And there are resources to support them. If you don't want to start a project of your own, find one that's related to your main concern and join in. Bring your supporters with you to help it grow

4) Promote Your Cause Directly

I've heard many speeches by politicians, authors, utilities providers, and others about conserving water, energy, and taking remedial action. Most were sincere. They provided these presentations at conferences, school functions, project openings, and public fairs. I myself have spoken on environmental issues at universities, at water conferences, local events, and several times at my church.

Staffing a booth is a fun way to promote sustainability in person.

Staffing a booth is a fun way to promote sustainability in person.

I know utilities providers and private companies who have put together conservation kits to hand out to elementary schools; government agencies who have retrofitted their buildings or created demonstration drought-tolerant gardens and given tours; and non-profits who staff tables at fairs or work together with other agencies on environmental projects (like naturalizing a formerly trashed portion of the Los Angeles River), which they then publicize. All of them also promote their activities at local fairs.

Local fairs are a great place to promote your cause. Just put together some flyers, brochures, and photographs, and secure a booth to display them. You can also invite the media to film your booth. Be prepared to discuss your issue with them, in case they want to write an article—you'll tell them many of the same things you would say to the public when they come around looking.

Be prepared to accept the public speaking invitations of local nonprofits who want their members to be aware of what you're doing. Here is a list of celebrities who promote environmental causes through public speaking.

5) Political Advocacy: Host or Join a Protest

I know of and have been involved with many projects that challenge current legislation and political practices:

  • Protesting Tar Sands XL pipeline, fracking, clean water supply, industrial hemp production.
  • Advocating for banning single-use plastic bags, against building sports parks inside the flood zone of a watershed, for getting Pasadena to stop using coal to produce electricity, against the state legislation that would have undermined our state's Clean Air Act.
  • Supporting local non-profits in taking remedial action, like cleaning up trash along the river, planting trees, and helping protesters finance their legal fees when they were arrested to "set an example."
Picketing in public places gets the attention of passersby, who often honk in agreement.

Picketing in public places gets the attention of passersby, who often honk in agreement.

Here are some of the forms this kind of promotional action can take:

  • Writing letters or signing petitions to legislators
  • Speaking at city council meetings or local events
  • Using social media to spread the word about an issue
  • Writing letters to local papers
  • Climbing historic trees to prevent them from being cut down
  • Picketing legislative offices or key locations in the public eye

Some people do key research for legislators to make sure their issue is heard fairly. Some set up websites or blogs. Some join, start, or donate to non-profits that promote their cause. All are looking to share what they have discovered about unfair practices that need to be changed. And yes, it makes a difference.

6) Hold the Media to Account

As well-known as the news media is for sensationalizing everyday news, they are also notorious for not covering things that are really important. Who cares if Romney badmouths Obama early on in his campaign, when so many people are losing jobs and gas prices are skyrocketing? Why talk about this or that celebrity gossip when the streets are filling with homeless people? Why is the media favoring Israel's moves, while ignoring the fears of Iran that Israel is building a nuclear arsenal pointed at them? Why is there so much bad news and not much good news?

The media is a great venue for spreading awareness of issues, but it needs to be more observant, well-balanced and fair. People like you and me can make sure it is by taking the following actions:

  • Write letters to the editor
  • Call in with requests for information
  • Research and write your own press release on issues important to you
  • Take good action shots of key events and send them in with captions

Reporters of all types are short on time and pressed for ideas (hence keyed up and not very creative). Most respond well to offers that will help them save time.

You can also start your own newsletter or contribute articles to those started by others. Look up GreenBiz.com, Earthtechling.com, or Ted.com for news about positive events and new technologies, then use them for your newsletter, copy key articles to your friends, or post them on Facebook.

7) Support Government Programs

There are hundreds of programs financed and provided by government bodies and agencies at all levels that promote Earth-friendly practices. You can become part of the promotion by taking advantage of them, and by spreading the word using your own experience as an example.

Utilities, schools, and other public agencies develop and carry out public education and experimental projects funded by the state and federal governments. Some programs related to the environment:

  • Free house audits for water or energy efficiency
  • Classes in how to grow native gardens
  • Free conservation fixtures and tools (like electric lawn mowers) with information about how important it is to conserve
  • Rebates for many items that you purchase yourself (Metropolitan Water District).

Some agencies provide a way for you to suggest your own project. Call them up or check their websites to see if there is anything you can take advantage of. Then help them spread the word. Not only will it help their programs to be more successful, but it will also link you with that program in people's minds.

How Can You Promote Your Issue?

Everyone has different skills and talents. Everyone cares about different issues and speaks to different audiences through different venues. The first step toward becoming more skilled at your own project's promotion is to look clearly at what you are doing right now, then look to see what others are doing and identify ways to improve or expand.

  • Could your project interest a different audience than you are currently?
  • Do you want to keep addressing the same audience, but in a different way? Check to see what they pay the most attention to—money, learning, fun?
  • Engage the help, interests, and skills of others of the public to expand your reach.
  • Team up with a local company or celebrity that wants to enhance their own image.

Above all, start with yourself and your family and friends. Do the things you want to see in the world. Be the example you want to see others follow. Then spread the word.

This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.

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