Tue, May 25 2010

You’re the PR person for a green charity funded by BP: What to do, what to say?

Katya Andresen's avatar

Author, Robin Hood Marketing

Filed under:   Cause-related marketing •

From today’s AdAge, a screen shot of the satirical rogue Twitter feed, BP GlobalPR.

The front page headline in yesterday’s Washington Post was not what you wanted to see if you work for the Nature Conservancy: “Oil spill threatens to stain alliances: Environmental nonprofits face potential backlash as supporters learn of ties to BP.”  It was worse online: “Nature Conservancy faces potential backlash from ties with BP.”

Which got me thinking: If you were head of PR for the Nature Conservancy or Conservation International or another organization happily accepting grants from BP these past years, what would you do now?

That being a tough question, I decided to let someone else answer it.  I posed it to branding guru Nancy Schwartz of GettingAttention.org, who recently took Susan G. Komen to task for their questionable fried chicken alliance with KFC.  (Buckets of fried chicken will defeat cancer?)  As expected, she immediately responded with some very good answers.

Me: Nancy, imagine you’re head of PR for one of these charities.  What do you do?  What do you say?

Nancy: As I see it, the fact of the Nature Conservancy’s (NC) taking funding from BP for years, no matter how small a percentage it is of the overall organizational budget, is a very bad sign of organizational values gone missing or soft. And once those values are endangered, resultant policy decisions are too.

This is brand gone bust big-time; far bigger even than the Komen-KFC cause marketing deal, chronicled here, since it’s all-organization and long-term rather than a single campaign.  There’s simply no way an environmental organization should be funded by a natural resources mining company – their key principles are radically opposed.

Here’s what the Nature Conservancy PR pro should do to try to rebuild the organization (and secondly, its brand)—not a bad idea for the PR teams at EDF, Conservation Intl etc.).  Better yet, NC should have followed these guidelines for guarding its brand and developing the right partnerships.

1. Get out there broadly and openly, and communicate—honestly.

• NC is doing a pretty good job of the broadly part. For example, they’ve been tweeting to build awareness of and questions for 2pm today chat on the topic with its CEO.
• But not so honestly.  The chat isn’t really a chat, despite NC’s claim to transparency.
    o Submitted questions aren’t visible on the chat page, nor will all be answered or even listed online.
    o The PR team will select “the best ones” for the CEO to respond to.

2. Train and prep key spokespeople, program staff (not the CEO or board members or the PR folks). The fact that an early NC response (via its blog, here) came from chief scientist Peter Kareiva does make it more credible – or at least makes it more compelling to read. • Ensure these spokespeople have personalities and that they say what they do.
• Two recent BP respondents to comments on Karieva’s post simply provide their names and describe themselves as BP employees. A title and a brief description of what they do will be more effective in building bridges. Otherwise, they remain faceless entities (the institution of NC, rather than individuals like those asking the questions).

3. Show and state appreciation of its supporters focus and passion for the cause they’re dedicated to, and the one that drives the Nature conservancy.
• To emphasize shared values—what brings the organization and its base together, rather than focusing on what divides them.

4. Acknowledge that – based on supporter input, and the fact that the NC lives by its network’s passion and support—NC has made a mistake in taking BP funding and in not acknowledging that funding up front in its initial responses to the gulf oil spill debacle.
• State that the partnership has been a productive one (what else can they say) in terms of their influencing BP to make the right decisions when asked, on renewables mainly.
• That NC has not let the funding influence its path but they realize the perception that taking the funding establishes.
    o And that perception is (almost) everything.

5. State that going forward, NC will no longer take funding from BP and any other natural resource mining companies (if it does so).
• But will continue to work with these companies to improve the environmental safety of their operations.

6. Invite participation in a supporter advisory group, to be launched this week. The advisory group (no more than 50 representatives at a time) will be reached out to for input as NC tries to climb out of this hole.

7. Reiterate the organization’s appreciation of its supporters and its commitment to working with them to protect the environment, including the gulf coast.
Me: Paging the Nature Conservancy:  I hope you’re reading this!  Thanks Nancy for some stellar advice.

  • Comment: (12)   


I’m NOT in complete agreement with Nancy on this one. Probably because I don’t view natural resources as bad. Nor do I view oil and gas exploration or mining of coal and other resources as bad or anti-environment.

Exploration and mining of natural resources can co-exist with environmental conservation.  I see them as complimentary.  Therefore I don’t consider BP supporting the Nature Conservancy (NC) as a “brand gone bust.”  I don’t see it as a sign of “Nature Conservancy’s organizational values gone soft.”

To me it’s a healthy partnership. BP and NC working together to minimize impact on the environment, and to preserve it.  Yes, the oil spill is terrible.  We’re all human and that means mistakes will happen.  Sadly some are worse than others; some with greater impact than others.  Yet even the “best” environmental groups have also made mistakes because they too, are comprised of humans. No one is perfect in thoughts or deeds.

I sometimes think we’re too quick to judge within the nonprofit sector. And although my opinion is likely a minority one within this sector (and probably quite unpopular), I felt it needed to be shared.  And lest readers think I don’t care about the environment – I have a MSE degree in environmental engineering.  I wouldn’t work that hard for something I don’t care about.

I respect Nancy’s expertise and follow her blog faithfully. However, on this one I disagree that the partnership between BP and NC is wrong.

Posted by Karen Zapp, copywriter  on  05/25  at  03:54 PM

Thank you, Karen—well said and you’re not alone. It seems to me all too easy to oversimplify the “good guys vs bad guys” in a case like this.

Fortunately for their effectiveness (and they are effective), TNC has a more sophisticated understanding. Their communications challenge is to convey the subtleties in a way that’s understood by folks who’d like the world to be simpler than it is.

As a former TNC staffer and lifelong environmental activist, I want to add that the implication that TNC can be “bought” with corporate money—and that somehow their values are “soft”—is a slap in the face to the thousands of incredibly smart, dedicated people who work there.

What’s more, it’s simply not true. And truth does matter, despite the common advice that “perception is everything.” I’d like to see more PR folks concerned about effectively conveying the truth, even when it’s complex.

Well, that’s how I see it, anyway.

Posted by Pam McAllister  on  05/25  at  05:22 PM


I work for The Nature Conservancy and thanks for the opportunity to respond to your concerns. We obviously don’t think the Washington Post article provides the right context or all of the background of our relationship with BP. We’ve been transparent in outlining our relationship with them in our online response strategy.

Our first step was to issue a blog post outlining the specific details of our relationship: http://blog.nature.org/2010/05/nature-conservancy-oil-company-energy-bp-nature/.

A number of people have submitted comments to that blog post and we’ve been engaging with them answering all of the specific questions that come in. We’re also posting all the responses to that article, unless those responses violate our blog rules of conduct.

Secondly, we’ve been monitoring the social media space engaging with as many people as we can that are talking about the story. Our digital team (a close group of 4) are working day and night to connect with these folks, sharing the full story on this issue and fielding questions.

Taking it a step further, we are providing an opportunity to take and answer questions about our work in the Gulf, our response to the oil spill, and our work with BP via a Q & A session with our president and CEO, Mark Tercek and Glenn Prickett, the Conservancy’s director of external affairs. You can follow along at 2pm ET today by visiting http://www.nature.org/tncscience/communications/.

We’ve been addressing so many questions over the last couple of days – we really want to highlight the most popular ones for our executive team to answer directly. After the chat, we’ll be posting the transcript for those that missed it.

We appreciate the advice you shared and we’ll keep you posted as this situation unfolds.

Posted by Amy Ganderson  on  05/25  at  06:37 PM

Thanks so much for sharing your very thoughtful responses to my perspective.

As many of you point out, it’s not at all a black and white situation.

And yes, TNC is working hard to engage with its network—those who support its decision to take BP funding and those who don’t. They’re being active, open and courteous—setting a great example of crisis communications style. But most importantly, TNC is working hard on gulf coast restoration.

What strikes me however is the disconnect between TNC’s mission as expressed in its brand. Its tagline is “Protecting Nature. Preserving Life.” Personally I don’t see how taking financing from BP fits in.

It’s a disconnect to me, but more important to TNC is touching base with its network to find out if its a disconnect to most of them.

In this case, brand is indeed defined to a great extent by what an audience thinks. And if the majority of TNC’s base sees its action in taking BP funding as a disconnect, that means the brand isn’t authentic and isn’t working.

BTW, I appreciate TNC’s stated appreciation for input. That’s great. 

The fact is that those of us who work in and for nonprofit organizations owe it to the orgs and to ourselves to do the best we can, even when doing so means critiquing the actions of a beloved organization.

Posted by Nancy Schwartz  on  05/25  at  08:29 PM
Katya Andresen's avatar

First off, thanks Amy for your responsiveness on behalf of TNC.  Your team has been both deft and nimble in your conversations in the blogsphere, and I appreciate your willingness to engage in discussion.

The spirit of this post, speaking for both me and Nancy, is constructive: what can be learned, and what can you do going forward?  We both like your organization - and are worried for it.  Hence the advice.

I am a big fan of cause-related partnerships - when there is a clearcut fit between the mission of the nonprofit and the aims of the corporate partner.  One can’t undermine the other or it doesn’t work.  There needs to be a balanced equation.  It can work when there is a shared vision and agenda, transparency and authenticity on both sides, the support of the vast majority of membership, and a clear advancement of mission for the nonprofit even in the worst-case scenario.

There is no question TNC should engage heavily with companies like BP to advance its mission by seeking to improve their environmental practices.  That’s a no brainer.  To me, the question is should it accept funding and give BP branding benefits - especially going forward?  Does money affect the balance of power in the partnership?  i think so.  Does TNC benefit as much as BP has?  I think not.

If I worked for TNC, I would not accept funding from BP going forward.  I think BP has done enough to show this is more than a mistake - there were some serious lapses in environmental standards.  It sounds like TNC is withholding judgment but leaving the door open to this possibility - in today’s chat, which was reflective of the openness Nancy recommends, they hedged:

“We take the public trust very seriously, and we must think hard about which companies we partner with and the outcomes we expect from those relationships. What we learn in the months ahead about BP’s role in this disaster and how they handle the long-term clean-up and restoration will certainly influence whether we work with them in the future and in what ways.”

Some other items from the chat worth sharing:

From TNC:

“One of the fundamental questions we ask ourselves before working with a company on its business practices is “will that work advance our on-the-ground or in-the-water conservation goals.” If the answer is yes, we should explore further the opportunity. If the answer is no, we move on.”

[From Nancy Schwartz:]
How does accepting funding from BP (and other corporations that profit from extracting natural resources) and not mentioning it even in your response to the spill and BP clean up strategies, mesh with your stated values of “transparency and values?” 

TNC’s Mark Tercek responded,

“We try to be as transparent as we can about our relationships with the companies we work with, including BP. You’ll find many references to this work on our website, in our magazine and in our annual report. However, in hindsight, I could have been clearer about our relationship with BP in my initial blog about the crisis. At the time, my colleagues and I were focused on protecting our coastal work in the Gulf and figuring out how we could help address the immediate challenges of the leak.”

As for that last response - we as nonprofits always have to make time to be transparent - and to thoroughly consider our partnerships.

Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  05/25  at  11:15 PM

For me, BP/TNC makes sense if BP was trying to migrate to sustainable energy and acting appropriately as a good community member. Deep Horizon is a huge black eye for all parties, BP, the Obama Administration and secondary partners like TNC because BP has failed to be responsible on So Many Levels.

My advice to TNCis to publicly sever the relationship to save face. This is no different than an athletic shoe company ending a contract with Tiger Woods or Gilbert Arenas or Mark McGuire. It’s just good business.

Posted by Geoff Livingston  on  05/26  at  01:55 AM

I think the TNC/BP relationship and the Komen/KFC relationships are pretty different. I worked in the enviro field for many years (my degree is actually in environmental science) and my husband still works in land conservation.

The fact is that natural resource and energy companies (along with railroads) either own or control through leases and other arrangements a great deal of the undeveloped American landscape. Conservation orgs have to work with these companies at some level in order to be effective and protect what’s left. Komen doesn’t need to work with the fast food industry to advance its mission, period.

While I agree that TNC needs to very carefully manage these kinds of relationships, including financial support, and to ensure that the money NEVER buys silence, I don’t think it rises to the complete money-grab that the Komen/KFC appears to. I still haven’t heard a well-articulated defense of that partnership from the nonprofit side.

Posted by Kivi Leroux Miller  on  05/26  at  04:29 AM

I keep thinking about this conversation, so here I am again with a couple more contributions to thinking about this ...

Here’s a serious question: Why shouldn’t natural resource corporations be funding scientific research that could highlight and reduce environmental impacts from their activities? (Activities, not-so-by-the-way, that provide commodities that all of us buy.)

The only way this position makes sense is if you believe that The Nature Conservancy and other science-based organizations can be “bought”—which is both insulting and untrue in my experience. (These are not the fake grassroots organizations the right wing is so fond of funding, they’re serious people doing serious work.)

Going forward, it does seem a good idea for all organizations to stop taking money from BP—knowing what we know now. (That is, if BP has any money left after the penalties and debarment that I hope will be imposed.) But judging this in retrospect?

One other thought about the “brand” aspect of this: It seems to me that people are reacting to the general “environmental organization” brand, not TNC’s idiosyncratic character.

The Conservancy is unusually cautious and corporate when compared to other environmental organizations. This is a great strength and lets it fill a particular niche among environmental groups. Long-term supporters generally understand and applaud this. And it’s reflected throughout the Conservancy’s communications, not hidden at all. (A tagline is not a “brand,” right?)

It’s also a source of aggravation for some folks. Sometimes it was for me when I worked there. People who are offended but still want to do *something* can support more “purist” groups—they’re also an important part of the ecosystem of the environmental movement. Some of them do great work and are effective. Some of them create a lot of noise and never accomplish anything.

Well, much more could be said, but I want to return my attention to action on the real issues underlying the BP oil disaster. (This seems a distraction by comparison, a bit of “eating our own” instead of getting to the heart of things.) But I did want to highlight a couple of the serious policy and strategy issues that might otherwise be overlooked.

And now I think I’ll go renew my lapsed membership in The Nature Conservancy.

Posted by Pam McAllister  on  05/26  at  05:32 PM

Hi guys,

Thanks for the interview with Nancy.  I really enjoyed reading it.

Kind regards,


Posted by SAMANTHA MILNER  on  05/27  at  08:32 PM

It is so hard to find spokesmen for any organization. I’ve worked with dozens of non-profits and they generally have one or two people that can deliver the message. The problem is that sometimes that’s not the director or upper management.

Keep a simple message - don’t let a board of directors muddle the main objective to get your mission accomplished and focus on how to deliver that message.

Nice article!

Posted by Nonprofit advertising agency  on  08/18  at  02:15 AM

I appreciate your willingness to engage in discussion. I also decided to let someone else answer it. Thanks wink

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