Photo courtesy of Stephanie Sica, photo credit: Joanna Totolici

As someone who’s in the business of making friends (superficially speaking), I know that this might burn some bridges. But, I’m okay with that, because small brands need to know what is going on in the industry:

Traditional public relations companies are screwing over sustainable brands.

For an ethical or sustainable brand – whether a scrappy start-up or fortunately well-funded – the strategy and tactics for getting coverage in traditional media outlets and blogs is different than your standard start-up selling glittery makeup or polyester fashion. But the realm of “sustainability” is one that publicists want to dive into… and capitalize on.

They might find themselves in hot water, though, with journalists, eco-bloggers and their own clients. Here’s why:

1. They Think Sustainability Is the Whole Story

By far and away, this is the most important point I will make. A few years back, when I first decided to solely represent sustainable brands, the space was far less saturated. Then, it was nearly enough to tell a brand’s “sustainability story” in order to spark an editor’s interest. And it’s easy to become labeled and pigeon-holed as an ethical or sustainable brand. But, that is not and cannot be the entire or only story.

The seismic shift in favor of sustainability (hooray!) means that saying something is eco-friendly or artisan-made is just not enough ‘meat’. Ethical and sustainable brands need to identify their differentiator, beyond their fair labor practices, organic fibers and transparent supply chains. These elements should be woven into a wider message (pun intended). This is why, during the initial phases of working with a client, my team dives into a brand analysis in order to pick out those differentiators, or the parts of their brand stories that make them stand out in the sustainable crowd. In doing a brand analysis with clients, and dissecting the brand story, we’re able to not only figure out what sets that brand apart, but also determine which other beats are relevant.

Every brand is multi-faceted. There’s an obvious business story, specific either to the brand itself or the entrepreneur/founder behind it. There’s sometimes a tech story, if your brand is bringing an innovative fabric or production method to market. For apparel companies, they may be positioned in fashion or trend-related pieces, or by way of wider, lifestyle angles. I could go on and on, but I’d need to charge you!

Of course, there is the sustainability story for niche outlets, but it’d be myopic to think that Brand X can only get placements within those (often quite small) publications. Sure, it requires a little creativity and a lot of time and effort to develop different angles and manipulate pitches depending on which outlet or reporter you’re speaking to, but that’s the name of the game and something I thoroughly enjoy doing.

2. They Don’t Know the Lingo

There could be an entire dictionary devoted to titles and terms that define the nebulous world of sustainability. Actually, it’s something I’m putting together (for internal use only, but—hey—comment below if it’d be useful to you). I can bet that many representatives don’t actually know the true meaning of “fair trade” or “organically farmed.” Most reporters, on the other hand, are fairly familiar with the certifications and phrases that are relevant, and get frustrated when a pitch turns out to be misleading because of a misuse of terms. Plus, these less-versed representatives, after confidently pitching a brand as sustainable or ethical, often need to “circle back” to the brand to find the answer to a very basic question, such as, “Where is it manufactured?” or, “What is the ingredient list?” Or worse, they’re not able to share such information, in which case the journalist is left thinking the brand is hiding something or greenwashing.

Prior to pitching to media, a good PR rep should have a long conversation with your brand about the entire company, from the founding, materials, production, to distribution and beyond. Only then can they determine what information can (most) and cannot (rarely any) be publicized. If they don’t, you’re not being appropriately served.

3. They Use Outdated (and Expensive) Tactics

As in life, I believe that the overall approach to this (and most other things) is quality over quantity. Forget press releases – they’re usually a waste of money and time, and are ignored by media outlets. I favor sending fewer, targeted, more personalized pitches via email or in person over coffee. Journalists and bloggers don’t appreciate a branded USB stick to add to their electronics graveyard.

Sending samples? I only send samples to journalists and influencers who have indicated an interest, and confirm their mailing address. Seems obvious, but many PR companies make a habit of sending out hundreds of gift bags of products in every shade, flavor, color, and scent wrapped in glossy nesting boxes to outdated mailing addresses. That’s something I’d never do. I’m mindful of the cost to the company and the packaging of the item (if it’s in my control). I believe it’s understandable for sustainable and ethical brands to not have the ability to do mass mailings, which are wasteful and against their ethos anyway.

4. They Ignore Their Small Clients in Favor of Big Ones

It’s incredibly difficult to scale the work of a publicist for different clients. Regardless, smaller brands with tighter budgets that are investing in PR should have their stories and voices at the forefront of these industry-shaping conversations. That means finding a representative that pays the same mind to each brand they work with, or possibly opting out of the agency route altogether, where your retainer pales in comparison to a larger brand, in turn, leaving your company as an afterthought on the list of priorities.

Still, a ‘tangible ROI’ is oftentimes not possible at first, meaning that there may be no direct, traceable correlation between a press hit and sales, as there is with marketing. One day, hopefully, the data will exist to track such things, but until then, it’s partially having faith in the process. There is a ‘snowball effect’ we allude to with all our clients: Press features become more frequent and continuous as more placements are secured, a result of increased brand exposure.

All in all, it’s taken time to figure out what works for sustainable brands, who are pioneering a new way of marketing and selling. It’s something that I—and other reps—are navigating every day, right along with the media at large. And maybe I’m biased, but I truly believe that PR is integral to the overall growth and success of a brand – sustainable or not.

So, what other questions do you have? Is it best to hire in-house or third party? How much should you budget, and what should you expect in return? Is your business ready to hire a publicist? Ask away in the comments below!