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Speaking Green, by Alexis Greene

Back in June I attended a day-long conference called “Speak Green,” hosted by that excellent organization, the Urban Green Council, in New York City.  The day’s topic: how to communicate about subjects such as sustainability, weatherization and retrofits, which are of vital import to those of us who work in this field but not exactly household terms among the people we are trying to reach: builders, homeowners, an organization’s own employees, and the media.

Sustainability, weatherization, retrofits: E.B. White, who long ago co-authored a famous book called The Elements of Style, would have called these “twenty-dollar words” – the kind of highfalutin expressions that make a reader’s eyes glaze over, or a listener start edging toward the door.

Indeed, Jason Sheftell, Real Estate Editor for The Daily News, urged everyone to ditch abstract terms. Readers, he said, just want to know how a green environment will change their lives. And they want narrative. Stories. If you install a Solar Hot Water (SHW) system at a low-income multifamily building, as Community Environmental Center frequently does, some people may be interested in the technology but most really want to know whether the residents are solving their day-to-day problems by saving money.

For a PR person this communications challenge of course has practical ramifications. If I pitch a story to mainstream media, it really has to have an immediate human angle, with strong visuals, in order to be picked up. Articles about hands-on work, which many of us find fascinating and essential – solar installations, cellulose insulation, weatherization – do better at industry publications. 

But there is a larger communications issue here, namely, how to convey to the general public that they can benefit from living and working green – and thus benefit from the services and products that a lot of us who attended “Speak Green” are marketing.  As often happens with any sort of innovative change, the people who have created the innovation – whether automobile or television set or personal computer – are initially much surer of its value than the potential users.

Perhaps we have yet to understand how innovative “living and working green” really is for most people.

For most Americans, it represents a revolution in life-style. As we’ve seen from the uproar that greeted CFL versus incandescent light bulbs, the idea of replacing the “traditional” bulb was anathema to many, even though the CFL would save energy, last longer and ultimately save the user money.

And that’s only a light bulb. Imagine, then, how it must sound when green organizations sing the praises of energy audits, retrofits or renewables.  

Actually, this is not even so much a revolution in life-style as a revolution in thought. We are asking consumers to think differently about the world we all share. We are asking them to recognize that there is no infinite supply of familiar resources such as oil and coal, land and water. We are asking them to accept that we have damaged the earth’s atmosphere and now we must try to repair it.

For a people who historically have always believed that there was always more ground, more forests, more fuel around the next bend in the road, the new reality is tough to acknowledge.

But as the communications experts at the “Speak Green” conference noted, nay-saying is a real downer. Hardly anybody wants to think about climate change or an energy crisis when they have to get up every day and go to work, take the kids to school, raise a family.  

And Americans, as we know all too well, tend to prefer short-term gratification instead of long-term benefits. So creating an energy-efficient home because it will one day help reverse global warming hardly makes it to the average to-do list.

Somehow we in this industry need to communicate the advantages and pleasures of living green.  Maybe it’s a matter of talking up the comfort of a home that has no drafts, or the additional productivity of a work-place that is energy efficient.

How to speak green so that people will listen remains an on-going challenge, one we must surmount if we are ever to attain a green revolution.






Alexis is the public relations coordinator at CEC.

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