Putting the Passion in ethical PR

4 August 2015

Good PR and marketing strategies are core to any great business trying to stand out. Cynically, PR has been called the dark arts – Edward Bernays (related to Sigmund Freud) literally wrote the book on it – but Passion PR wants to change that

Leanne Frisbie runs Passion PR, the ethical PR company that campaigns only for businesses and organisations trying to make a positive impact on culture, people or the planet.

“They’re what I call conscious businesses that are trying to make a difference through what they do. In setting up Passion PR almost seven years ago I had a gut feeling that more and more businesses would become interested in working with people who share their values and that’s happening,” she says.

Passion PR boasts a client list that includes Wanderlust, The Exceptional Health Company, Golden Yogi, Red Seal, Ceres Organics, and Mrs Rogers – all companies that have one thing in common: they’ve chosen Passion PR because they share similar values. They are companies that care about people, culture or environment and getting this message to their audience as part of their marketing.

“Marketing of ethical or conscious brands is not a lot different to marketing other brands: the principles are all the same, it doesn’t matter who you’re promoting, the same skill set applies,” says Leanne. “I like to think that we’re using PR to level the playing field for those ethical brands that don’t have the same PR budgets as the bigger, shall we say ‘less conscious’ brands. In doing so we’re also influencing the less conscious brands because they see the positive stuff other brands are doing through the media and marketing and want to keep up.”

Leanne says that there’s a dilemma in PR in the way it and marketing can contribute to consumerism, so she aims to avoid or work within that dilemma in the best way possible.

“I try to work with companies that sell products made in a more sustainable way or that add to the health and well-being or the enhancement of people’s lives in some way, or companies that are selling experiences rather than material goods such as Wanderlust.”

Within those businesses, and the realm of the dilemma, there is a fair amount of reputation advising and making sure that clients think about how their values stack up in the real world.

“A brand may believe it’s totally eco-friendly or sustainable,” Leanne says, “But I try to challenge them because I know the public certainly will and that can damage a brand. For example, I put pressure on one of my clients about the use of palm oil. I said to them, ‘you’re saying that you use sustainable palm oil but do you actually know what that means?’ They said they had a certificate but didn’t actually know what it meant in practice.

“In theory all palm oil is sustainable, once you’ve cleared away a rain forest. You can easily replant palm trees and they grow quickly, so what does this term sustainable palm oil actually mean?”

Leanne says that one of the things she loves about her job, and that sets it apart from other agencies, is the fact that she gets to work with brands to help them improve their sustainability practices because this is all part of reputation management if a company is marketing itself as an “eco” brand.

“For example the whole food packaging issue: you might have an organics brand that isn’t concerned about its packaging, only what’s inside the packet. But the public doesn’t look at it that way. Conscious consumers get confused when there are conflicting values in a brand – such as unsustainable packaging for an organic product, or a socially conscious brand that doesn’t seem to care about the environment.

“So part of my role involves saying to a company, ‘look, when you’re going out there and telling people how positive your product is, they are going to question it and it doesn’t take long for them to dig up anything that isn’t congruent with the marketing’. You have to have all aspects of your house in order, not just parts of it.” 

Leanne cites the agency’s new play, ‘Between Two Waves’ (showing at the Aotea Centre, Auckland from 4-14 August), which focuses on climate change, as a way of engaging with audiences through new mediums. The play is an exploration of the way humans have felt powerless or indifferent to act on the biggest issue of our time – climate change.

There are financial consequences that come with being an ethical PR agency and working only with clients that align with your values but Leanne says that making a difference offsets the financial loss.

“You’re basically cutting out a whole segment of the market that you could work with. Often it’s a challenge because massive corporations find it hard to line up with ethical and sustainable and social values because they are so fixated on returning profits to shareholders.”

She says that although there are many brands that Passion PR wouldn’t work with, the agency doesn’t apply a rigid criteria to prospective clients as long as they are trying to make a positive difference in some way.

“It’s about getting people that are on the sustainability journey and are wanting to change and being able to help them further by showing them the benefit – from our point of view – of being a great, ethical, conscious and sustainable brand.”

You can find out more about authentic communication at the Project NZ: Telling Good Stories conference, in Auckland on 3rd September, at which Leanne will be facilitating a panel of media experts.