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Southeast Asia PR industry launches working group to curb greenwashing

An industry body for the public relations industry in Southeast Asia has launched a working group to address greenwashing in corporate communications.

The Singapore-based Public Relations & Communications Association (PRCA) of Southeast Asia announced in a webinar on Thursday that it wanted to work with industry on filling knowledge gaps on sustainability topics, and set standards for how businesses communicate sustainability.

Currently there are few regulations in Southeast Asia or elsewhere that prevent companies from greenwashing, which is when companies or governments make false, exaggerated or superficial sustainability claims in their marketing.

The working group will be chaired by Janissa Ng, the former head of communications at conservation group World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) Singapore, who joined PR firm Spurwing in January.

On the webinar titled ‘Does PR hurt or help sustainability?’ Ng said that she had been prompted to move from the NGO to public relations because of the many times PR firms had asked WWF for its “stamp of approval” in their sustainability communications.

This helped Ng realise that “there was something was going really wrong” in the PR industry’s approach to sustainability. PRCA’s working group aims to help PR firms give clients sound advice on communicating environmental, social and governance (ESG) issues, and to avoid greenwashing on their behalf.

“Is the PR industry contributing to a productive conversation that helps us get to the next stage [in sustainability], or are we obscuring what needs to be done?” she said.

Ng said when designing PR campaigns with sustainability messages, information can often get “lost in translation”, and PR professionals need to ensure they are up to speed on ESG issues and trends.

Is the PR industry contributing to a productive conversation that helps us get to the next stage [in sustainability], or are we obscuring what needs to be done?

Janissa Ng, chair, sustainability working group, PRCA Southeast Asia

Sarah Cragg, a former Ben & Jerry’s communications executive who joined Conservation International four months ago as its Asia-Pacific partnerships and marketing director, said that PR firms and other service providers need to be upfront about their experience in ESG, and acknowledge their limitations in what is still a new discipline.

She pointed to PwC’s announcement last week that it would create 100,000 new jobs to help clients navigate ESG issues over the next five years. “There are definitely not 100,000 ESG experts out there not doing anything yet,” she said. “People have to be trained.”

PRCA’s working group launches off the back of a WWF study, published in March, that found that one in five consumers in Singapore say they do not trust sustainability claims from businesses.

Sustainability claims have surged off the back of the Covid-19 pandemic. Audrey Tan, science and environment correspondent for Singapore’s Straits Times newspaper, said she had noticed that many net-zero commitments from companies have not fully explained how they were going to meet their targets.

“The devil is in the detail — and the detail is missing in these net-zero pledges. We want to know how you will reach net-zero,” Tan said.

When communicating sustainability, Ng said that PR firms needed to find the right balance between telling a positive story and being honest and transparent about the challenges a company faces in realising its ambitions.

“As communicators, we need to make sure we are not just telling one side of the story, and be brave and acknowledge that it isn’t easy, it’s always a process, and find more balance in our messaging.”

To join PRCA’s working group, email communications@prca.seasia.global

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