BSR Conference 2012: Fast Forward / October 23-26 / New York

Backstory: The Media’s Role in Sustainability

One-Hour Conversation Session / October 26, 2012

Speakers

  • Eric Roston, Editor, Bloomberg Sustainability News
  • Andrew Revkin, Senior Fellow, Environmental Understanding, Pace University’s Academy for Applied Environmental Studies, Writer, Dot Earth blog, The New York Times Op-Ed
  • Eva Dienel, Communications Manager, BSR (Moderator)

Highlights

  • Sustainability stories are often difficult to tell because they are deeply nuanced and require explanations of complex data.
  • In trying to “manage” transparency, companies often undermine their stories and make it difficult for sustainability reporters to tell those stories effectively. Great sustainability journalism often requires on-site visits and engagement with primary sources, rather than communications professionals.
  • Sustainability media can use a variety of tools—such as video, graphics, and reader engagement—to better explain sustainability.

Memorable Quotes

“The absolutely essential thing you need for journalism is independent verification. And there is no way to independently verify virtually anything that I am presented with as a corporate responsibility story because there’s this tension between wanting to be transparent and wanting to manage transparency.” —Eric Roston, Bloomberg Sustainability News

“We are all in the ‘nerd loop’ right now. We are talking amongst ourselves instead of talking to people … It is all about talking to the world.” —Andrew Revkin, The New York Times

“Maybe you can encourage your staff to join the conversation using the tools that they have [e.g., blog posts and comment fields] if they feel like their perspective was overlooked in a media article.” —Eva Dienel, BSR

Overview

Kicking off the conversation, Dienel asked about the role of media in influencing behavior and changing minds. Roston explained that, while he is on record for having certain beliefs, he does not advocate policy in his coverage. Rather, he sees his role as fact-checking and developing a narrative.

In response to follow-up questions from Dienel, Revkin noted that his blog appears under the Opinion Pages, but he cautioned, “I’m really a bad opinion writer because my opinion is that reality matters. And so quite often my opinion is that ‘this is more complicated than you think it is based on what you read elsewhere.’” He added that in the 20th century the media had more authority, but that in the new world of technology and media there is more information and less authority. Consequently, people have to consult multiple sources to develop a thorough understanding. While this new approach is more complicated, Revkin proposed that it is better in the long run.

Dienel went on to ask about challenges in covering sustainability. Roston replied that the word “sustainability” itself is an impediment. While the word’s innocuousness creates a safe space for a broad conversation, it risks making people disinterested. Climate change is particularly tough to cover in part because the subject does not have actors, making it difficult to tell stories.

Continuing the conversation, Dienel inquired about ways to make sustainability stories more appealing. Revkin said there is no clear answer, though it is valuable to experiment with “finding the right tool for the job.” For example, in one case Revkin used an infrared video to show methane gas leaks that would not have appeared in a traditional video. In other cases, creative graphics can better grab attention and tell the story.

Dienel then asked about relationships with sources, noting that businesspeople are often skeptical of the press. Revkin highlighted that resistance to transparency can harm corporations by limiting the media’s ability to tell good stories and triggering the public to overreact. Corporations, he noted, are often their own worst enemies.

Roston added, “You can’t have transparency and manage transparency.” He lamented that it is difficult to find sources in sustainable companies; instead he often speaks with external communications firms, who refer him to internal communications personnel. “The communication that I receive is almost completely nonhuman communication … I’m being presented with talking points.” In contrast, the best sustainability stories done at Bloomberg have involved visiting global sites to personally investigate stories.

Given that the pace of change in sustainability stories is often slow, Dienel asked how journalists can keep those stories interesting. Revkin commented that stories about overcoming adversity can be particularly powerful, referencing a story about BP engineers who were able to conquer challenges to drastically cut methane emissions.

Roston cited Unilever and its CEO Paul Polman as “geniuses … at sustainability communication,” particularly in how the company showcases its Sustainable Living Plan on earnings calls. Roston read from an earnings call transcript where Polman chided analysts for not doing more to understand the company’s Sustainable Living Plan. In communicating directly to analysts about sustainability, Polman created a sustainability news story.

Roston replied to another question by noting Bloomberg’s business audience. He expressed his desire to encourage a “standard set of assumptions” about sustainability, as well as to bring sustainability to a new audience. Revkin added that he hopes to break stories into parts and demonstrate a more nuanced approach to thinking through sustainability news.

Shifting topics, Dienel asked about business models for sustainability media. Both panelists invoked exciting opportunities to experiment and engage the public. Revkin cited his work with students to create documentaries about sustainability topics. Roston referred to nonprofit media models such as Inside Climate News.

During the Q&A, an audience member asked whether the media has a role in downplaying “short-termism” to encourage companies to focus on the long term. Roston replied that the job at Bloomberg is to inform users of the company’s services. The press writes about what people are doing, he went on, so if companies issue quarterly earnings guidance, the media will cover that guidance; if companies don’t, then the media will cover the absence of that guidance.

In response to another audience question, Roston reiterated that journalism comes down to trust. He emphasized that it is hard to build that trust over email and with communications consultants. Instead, he prefers to rely on primary source interviews.

The panel ended on a hopeful note, as the panelists noted the importance of groups such as those in the audience coming together to understand sustainability and positive sustainability stories.



Thank You, Sponsors

Executive Sponsors

Cisco Hitachi PwC Target UL Responsible Sourcing

Associate Sponsors

Anheuser-Busch InBev

Supporting Sponsors

Adobe AT&T ExxonMobil Green Mountain Coffee Roasters, Inc.

Participating Sponsors

American Express Baker & McKenzie LLP Best Buy BNY Mellon Ford Hyatt Hotels Corporation The Walt Disney Company UPS Vale

Contributing Sponsors

Chevron icix Levi Strauss & Co.

Convening Media

Bloomberg Business Week Weber Shandwick

Marketing and Media

3BL Media BEF Caixin Media Corporate Knights Globescan GreenBiz Group Inc. Hemlock Responsible-Investor Sina Stanford Social Innovation Review (SSIR) Tomorrow Partners