When the media believe that a firm is really green

June 4, 2023

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When the media believe that a firm is really green

When firms make their environmental policies public, they can get favorable media coverage only if their narrative contains accepted signals of conformity (actions aimed at complying with existing norms) and distinctiveness (the adoption of a recognizably uncommon behavior).

A new paper by researchers from multiple universities proposes a framework that seeks to explain which combinations of signals can generate positive coverage and which ones fail to.

In the background of how companies communicate their environmental policies lies what can be described as a trade-off, or at the very least some tension, between conformity and distinctiveness. This tension reflects the fact that companies struggle to describe themselves as being “conforming” and “distinctive” at the same time. Striking a balance between these two characteristics is therefore essential in order to be perceived by the media as convincingly committed to environmentally sound policies, but it can also prove quite challenging.

The authors have identified three different types of signals on a scale of increasing credibility that hint at conformity and three that hint at distinctiveness.

The former grouping (conformity signals) includes donations, associations, and certifications. The latter (distinctiveness signals) includes transformative actions (i.e., changes in products, processes, and structures aimed at reducing a firm’s environmental footprint), inter-firm partnerships, and ratings.

Their varied credibility is a consequence of their nature: the first and least credible element in each grouping is generated by the firm itself, the second by associating with other actors and the third and most credible is provided by external parties.

Considering that the media naturally see such signals in combination with each other and not separately, the paper’s authors wanted to understand which of these combinations are most likely to trigger positive reactions in media coverage. By processing data regarding electrical utilities between 2008 and 2013 and over 11,000 articles that dealt with their environmental initiatives, the authors identified three main favorable patterns.

“Congruent signalers” are firms that display their environmental behavior in a consistent manner (i.e. conforming or distinctive) around a highly credible signal; “balancing signalers” couple a highly credible signal of conformity (certification) with lower credibility signals of distinctiveness (like transformative actions) or vice versa; and “muddling-through signalers” use a combination of less credible signals of both conformity and distinctiveness and can only hope to garner positive media coverage for a limited period. All other combinations, apparently, are either unconvincing or too confusing and inconsistent to attract admiration in the media.

What the researchers say: “We see that the presence or absence of highly credible, third-party signals determine the way the media perceive incongruence and, thus, the way they react to the level of conformity vs distinctiveness represented in signal combinations,” the lead author explains. “Highly credible, third-party signals seem to play a complex role in the media’s assessment of environmental firm behavior. They are, from a firm’s perspective, a double-edged sword regarding media coverage outcome, as their mere presence does not guarantee the positive media assessment that some may expect. The key issue is whether the third-party signals deliver a single, congruent message. If this is not the case, and the media face a mix of highly credible signals with opposite messages of distinctiveness and conformity, they do not grant positive coverage.”

So, what? This is an interesting study from several perspectives. It confirms a number of recent studies that have shown organizations—especially corporations and large partnerships—get their sense of value and status from outside recognition. This is exactly how human beings work.

Also interesting is the issue of the play-off between conformity and distinctiveness. Again, this is very similar to individual human cognitive processes.

Finally, the paper gives a clear direction for organizations’ PR activities in the areas of sustainability, climate change and ESG.

Dr Bob Murray

Bob Murray, MBA, PhD (Clinical Psychology), is an internationally recognised expert in strategy, leadership, influencing, human motivation and behavioural change.

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