[SB Paris Interview] Jeff Burnside and Guillaume De Vesvrotte on Environmental Journalism

As we near the finish line before the big event, we’re taking some time to discuss what is really at stake for every company, every shareholder, and every living thing on this planet.

The work of environmental journalists around the globe is more critical than ever. With a news cycle that runs 24/7 (thanks to social media) and the ever-increasing speed of technological developments — citizens around the planet are “woke”!

Your consumers want to know how our planet is changing with global warming, they want to be involved in the healing of our environment, and they certainly care about the values of the companies which affect their daily lives.

Let’s be real: No corporate social responsibility program is going to matter in 2050 or 2100 if we have not effectively accomplished the immediately critical work of restoring our natural ecosystems.

To discuss the real role of environmental journalism in our present society, and how the media can most effectively partner with the private sector, we’ve invited Jeff Burnside, immediate past president of the Society of Environmental Journalists, for an interview alongside Guillaume Richard de Vesvrotte, CO Global Sustainable Innovation of Pixelis and Founder of SB Paris.

Welcome, Guillaume and Jeff! Please take a moment to introduce yourselves.

Guillaume: I am an entrepreneur that stands at the crossroads between sustainability, marketing, and innovation. I started my career in major global advertising firms, doing marketing and communications for global brands and organisations. It occurred to me at one point that marketing, and actually business, had to change. This time was the very beginning of CSR as we know it, mainly made of reports and certifications. It was not a strategic issue for businesses, only a line in their P&L and a PR topic.

I then created and sold three companies in the last 15 years: the first communication agency dedicated to sustainability in France, another agency dedicated to NGOs, and a green and social innovation media. Five years ago, I met Pixelis and fell in love with the teams and the project:s we want to build a community that can actually scale positive impact projects by using the amazing, unexploited transformational power of global brands.

Pixelis is a 100% employee owned, B Corp certified, flat organization launched 20 years ago as a design studio. It is now the largest independent branding and design agency in France, as well as a marvelous “branding & innovation for good” incubator.

We connect brands to start-up and networks to shift their models and make it to the market. I run the Pixelis global “green & social” innovation community and development, that allows us to help shifting brands becoming the heroes of tomorrow. As I often say, if global brands do not want to be the next Kodak or SEARS, they should find a way to become useful to something – and be very fast and bold if they want to survive what is already coming!

Jeff: I’ve been a television news reporter and investigative reporter for more than 20 years. I cover a wide spectrum of topics because true beat coverage is rare in broadcasting. But I have long been drawn to stories about our environment and I’m now doing my first film. I serve on the board of the Society of Environmental Journalists, one of the leading such groups in the world, and am SEJ’s immediate past president. SEJ’s annual conference is the world’s largest annual gathering of reporters who focus on environmental issues. We invite you to get to know SEJ at www.sej.org.

We’re looking forward to the “Youth Hactivators” program at SB Paris, where 50 younger international participants will help the world’s leading corporations by challenging their strategies and models. Tell us about one major turning point that led to your present career path.

Guillaume: I think of two actually! Fifteen years ago, working in a large, de-humanized corporation, I witnessed a couple poor business decisions in the same week: unethical sales behaviors related to short-term, siloed thinking. The said company lost two of its major accounts due to these decisions. This was when I decided to change the very business by becoming an entrepreneur, and left my job.

Five years ago, after a decade helping global brands on sustainability and communication, I saw a commercial that I had designed on a billboard, promoting an inspirational claim from a fashion company. One meter aside, a newspaper shop was displaying a new slavery scandal, linked to the exact same brand! This was when I understood that we have to transform the very definition of business. This was also when I started realizing that global brands were aware of that!

Jeff: I’ve been fortunate to have known from a very young age that I wanted to be a news reporter. But it was solidified when I was a young kid at home watching the Washington Post’s Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein expose the Watergate scandal that, along with other reporters, brought down U.S. President Nixon. It gave me a sense of civic ethics, right vs wrong and the ability of investigative reporting to hold the powerful accountable.

I never looked back. Like so many journalists, I’ve used that moral compass to guide my decisions even to this day and to try to make the world a better place.

Q: Jeff, you’ve been a TV news reporter for more than 20 years, and have won over 25 journalism awards and 10 regional Emmys. Congrats! How is the mainstream media landscape recognizing and reporting on environmental issues differently in 2019 than in 1999?

Jeff: I’ve stated in several public talks that I believe we are entering a New Golden Age of reporting on energy and environmental issues in the U.S. where we have lagged behind European news coverage. In spite of the disruptions and tectonic shifts in journalism in general, there is a rising awareness among U.S. news managers as well as news consumers that energy and environmental issues are, with every new person born into the world, more and more important.

Entries in journalism competitions are astonishingly good and the number of entries continues to rise. I see more coverage of energy and environmental issues in media platforms that, until recently, haven’t given such topics prominent placement, such as U.S. network television, cable news, local newspapers, new kinds of news platforms, foundation-funded reporting, nonprofit newsrooms, podcasts, news partnerships and more.

Certainly, climate change is driving much of the awareness as poll after poll shows people believe humanity must take action. But be aware that environmental journalism is not environmental activism. While there is a place for clearly labeled advocacy journalism on any topic, for impartial journalists, that line is very clear. It’s not our job to inspire action but it is our job to inform people so they can decide whether to take action. There is a distinction.

Q: Guillaume, congrats on founding and executing the inaugural Sustainable Brands Paris conference! What is your general feeling on how corporations are effectively bringing the urgency of climate change and environmental issues to their stakeholders? Can you provide an example of one company rising above the crowd?

Guillaume: Corporate social responsibility (CSR) and sustainability have gone through several phases in the last decade. We can only imagine what it will become in the age of digital transformation.

Twenty years ago, it was a matter of “getting things prettier” even if reality does not fit. Fifteen years ago it was about having a website. Ten years ago, it was all about labels, CSR reports, “getting things cleaner” and reducing your negative impact. Five years ago, firms were more about “finding their fight”, positioning themselves on what is consistent with their DNA. In the last 2 years, I saw a deep shift towards “creating positive impact”. Now, it is about transformation, cultural shift, transparency, and trust! This is important: this means that companies no longer are trying to save bad business models, but trying to figure out how to generate a positive impact from the beginning.

I often say that if you do not want to be the next Kodak, you should become useful — and quickly. Now I’m witnessing brands striving to become the next business heroes, engaging in a positive, inclusive, green society. They have the scale, the speed, the money, and the reach, and they do not care about borders, or politics. They are just starting to understand that this is a strength, and not a burden.

I could obviously talk about Patagonia as an example (and they are a fellow B Corp which is always an asset, in my opinion); They have perfectly understood how a company is not about the products but about a project you build with your stakeholders. Products are a translation of your project, and will be the perfect vehicle for values and profit. But I prefer large corporations that decide to shift, which is a much bigger challenge.

Take the French dairy giant Danone. This group of 120,000+ employees, was nearly the symbol of massive, dirty food production 15 years ago. Now they’re dedicated to sustainability and responsible business practices — pursuing B Corp certification across all markets. They now put positive impact at the core of their value proposition, and they convinced their shareholders to go through this journey with them. Take H&M, the fast fashion giant, moving from “disposable” clothes to circular fashion. Take L’Oreal, the cosmetics leader, divesting from palm oil and becoming one of the major protectors of the rainforest. These commitments are far more impressive when you think of the challenge they accept, and of the size of the impact they shift from negative to positive.

The Loop Project from my friend Tom Szaky, Founder of TerraCycle, is now working with 25 of these huge companies in order to put an end to plastic waste.

Q: Jeff, what do you see as the main challenges and opportunities for companies seeking the attention of mainstream media with relation to environmental issues?

Jeff: I have urged journalists and news managers to give more coverage to sustainability and the genuine contributions from the corporate world. There are a million powerful, bona fide stories out there that deserve coverage. A growing commitment in the corporate world to sustainability, the environment and fighting climate change is a key part of the solution to saving the world as we know it. I can’t think of a more important story. But U.S. media coverage is lagging behind this viewpoint. Giving coverage to a for-profit company has always been an awkward concept for some journalists. “The corporate goal is to make money. So why would I give them free publicity? That’s what advertising is for,” this thinking goes. But profits and goodness are, of course, very compatible and shouldn’t preclude coverage.

I also believe companies have a hard time seeing stories sitting right under their noses. This may be because they don’t think like journalists (or such thinking may not be encouraged). They’re too close to their own stories to spot them. And they are often too focused on getting the name of the company as a prominent part of the story. I have so often stumbled onto a story inside the corporate world and thought “that’s a great story.” A story involving your company may be part of a larger story. Embrace that.

Finally, press releases can be very problematic. As sophisticated PR and marketing professionals know, there are five main problems: 1) They can be so poorly written that the reader must search for the gist. And they read as though the writer is trying to please the boss rather than frame a bona fide story. 2) They try too hard to promote the company itself rather than the story. 3) Reporters are less interested in doing a story that everyone else has. 4) They lack trust. 5) They’ve lost value because they are overused for announcements that lack consequence or real news value. Want my attention? Write a press release with shocking frankness. Instead of press releases, building relationships with reporters continues to work well.

Remember, environmental journalists may cover the same issues important to you. But that doesn’t mean they’re your friends. There is no unspoken alliance.

Q: Guillaume, what will attendees learn at SB Paris that will help them to more effectively work with environmental journalists and mainstream media?

Guillaume: The problem is always the same: once you’ve told your story, you need to go deeper and actually transform your business. Journalists and media outlets are not blind, they easily see what is behind the curtain.

At SB Paris, things will be different: journalists are actively participating. Conference participants will be able to build and improve their CSR positioning and actions by meeting and engaging with the media, learning from them and finally collaborating in a common project. This is very powerful.

Q: What’s your final takeaway for our readers?

Jeff: Circumventing the news media, of course, continues to be a growing option. Content creation is getting really good, even though it doesn’t carry the same credibility because it’s not written by an unencumbered third party. When it comes to engaging with reporters and seeking coverage, don’t give up. Even in this day and age, one well-placed news story can still have astounding influence for your company and its mission.

Certainly, once such a story runs, it’s in the company’s interest to magnify the impact by reposting the story in social media and internal platforms. It’s not how many people consumed the story that ran on Tuesday but how many people you provide in the days and weeks following that initial story.

Guillaume: Sustainability must be an asset, or else it will be a challenge for your company.

There is one place to be this April: Sustainable Brands Paris. This event is a truly unique, collective meeting and we look forward to witnessing the change that will take place. Please join me there.

Thank you so much for your insights, Jeff and Guillaume!

Interview originally published on Sustainable Brands Paris website as a lead-up to #SBParis19.