This is personal. One of those new-year-reflection things. It was teed up by a journalist, writing his piece–and maybe later a book–about greening. His hook is the half-century anniversary of the big-bang greening book, Silent Spring.
His question to me: “You’ve been called the father of (corporate) environmental communication. What do you consider your most important accomplishment?”
I put on my reflective eyeglasses and wrote back:
Let me respond to your question and then say something about the “father of” comment.
My most important accomplishment? Associating with winners–thinkers and doers who influenced greening–starting in 1962 at MCA (Manufacturing Chemists Association, the trade group of chemical companies targeted by Silent Spring) when Rachel Carson’s first installment of the book came out in the New Yorker.
Carson started the green age, and I was engaged with corporate leaders, especially public relations executives, the best, most principled communicators I could have imagined. They led me, educated and challenged me to get into what would become the substantial, far-reaching, complex and productive social and business issue of the 20th century and it continues.
I recall the work, the awe, the learning…being at Rotterdam with CEOs and PR executives when the business charter on sustainable development was started, and then in Rio de Janeiro for the earth summit in 1962–which was coincidentally, the 30th anniversary of Carson’s book–and having a hand in the business leaders’ communication–the speech of a chemical industry executive (the “don’t trust us, track us” idea) and my own little speech where I introduced my idea of “sustainable communication.”
By then I had formed a firm with environmental communication–shortened to Envirocomm, which we took to Europe and set up some affiliate firms–and because of work with clients and environmentalists and people in government. It led to a lot. I had such highs as being in the room in the White House, sitting with fellow clean-air advocates, when President George H. W. Bush signed the very vigorous Clean Air Act Amendments law, which our clients had supported.
Communicators on the business front smile when things work out, when crisis subsides and transformation goes in a good direction. It’s a smile to look back because you see where good began—like the Responsible Care program, now a sustainability standard, that was started by chemical industry people in the Carson crisis aftermath.
As a communicator on the business side, it’s heartening to see how strategic, principled leadership communication enables values to be compared, dissected, debated, updated , shared, and, even if sometimes contentiously, ultimately embraced as a reasonable, negotiated outcome, and good grows.
The part I have had in that—my God, is it really 50 years?—is satisfying, and that’s the “accomplishment” that you’ve kicked off in my head with your question..
As to your “father of environmental communication” comment? Well, I know that’s a mixed message. While I certainly can’t object to being thought in the sense that “success has a thousand fathers”—and our progeny has a philosophy and sustainability practice that works and returns a lot of good–I know as a for-real father that fatherhood carries with it the humbling lesson that learning is never done, it’s a lifetime, two-way, looking for answers proposition.
So I hold fast. I’ve learned and I’m still learning. There is increasing accountability, sustainable accountability in the business community, working with government and NGOs, for the progress that started with the wake-up call of Silent Spring.
On this momentous anniversary of the book, the learning opportunity is evergreen, and I expect to be telling that to my students at Georgetown, who don’t know that Rachel Carson created a crisis that kick-started careers like mine and helped us to understand how leaders communicate effectively and how a communicator can learn to lead.
Happy new years are, in my experience, those that start with lessons learned and wind up with promises kept.
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