Beyond press release journalism: Digging up an environmental business story

“Don’t reproduce press releases from companies, or accept their corporate PR. To get to the real stories, journalists have to dig deeper and work a bit harder.”

Paolo Pietrogrande
, Chairman of Atmos Holding, offered this piece of advice when talking to an international group of journalists at the V Greenaccord International Media Forum on the Protection of Nature, held from 7 to 11 Novmeber 2007 in Rome, Italy.

Pietrogrande (seen speaking in photo, below) was talking on ‘new investment scenarios in renewable energy sources’ during a session on sustainable economic mechanisms. A New York based Italian businessman with past experience in Ducati Motor, General Electric, Bain&Company and Ryanair, he suggested that many positive environmental business stories were being overlooked by the media.

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According to him, there are billions to be made in clean energy and clean technology sectors in the coming years — and venture capitalists and other investors have already recognised this potential. Real Money is now being invested in these sectors, often below the media’s radar and without any fanfare.

This is not corporate social responsibility (CSR), philanthropy or ‘greenwashing’ PR. These are hard-nosed investors who fully expect good and dependable returns on what they put in. They do due diligence and take expert advice before putting in their billions into such emerging sectors.

Yet, immersed in peddling doom and gloom stories – especially on climate change these days – most media outlets miss out on these stories which have significant business and environmental angles.

His advice to journalists included these tips:
* Don’t look at press/media sections on corporate websites, which is usually full of PR. Even CSR reports are carefully crafted to give a rosy picture. The real stories lie elsewhere.
* Instead, read the annual reports of companies, especially the CEO’s letter to shareholders. That’s a carefully crafted statement and analysis which contains a good deal of information.
* Stop replying on press releases, and certainly don’t get into the habit of recycling them in news stories. Instead, look at public disclosure documents of companies for leads and insights.

The environment has moved way beyond CSR and corporate PR, he said. More and more companies realise how environmental compliance increases their efficiency and thus profitability. Whole new business areas and opportunities are opening up for those working on clean energy and clean technologies. The impetus has come from concerns on global climate change.

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If Pietrogrande sounded a bit like Carl Sagan – talking of billions and billions – that is understandable. He sees vast potential in clean energies and clean technologies that can help reduce carbon emissions causing global warming. Industry has traditionally made profit emitting carbon, and now there is money – and profit – to be made cleaning it up.

Investors are lining up with the money, but good ideas and projects are in short supply, he said.

Which reminded me of something that the American engineer, architect and visionary Buckminster Fuller once said: “There is no shortage of energy on this planet. There is, however, a serious shortage of intelligence”.


Meeting photos courtesy Adrian Gilardoni’s Flickr account

Journalists and scientists seeking Green Accord

Can journalists save the planet?

This was the question I raised in a blog post written in April 2007. Arguing that environmental journalists alone cannot adequately address the multitude of complex environmental challenges faced today, I wrote: “We urgently need more good journalism that covers sustainable development as an integral part of mainstream human affairs.”

For the past five years, an Italian non-profit cultural association named Greenaccord has been attempting just this. In the (northern hemisphere) Fall of each year, they invite and host 50 – 60 journalists and scientists from all over the world to discuss how the media can be an integral part of society’s response to today’s environmental crises. In fact, they believe the media must play a path-finder role in our search for solutions.

During this week, I have been attending the V Greenaccord International Media Forum on the Protection of Nature, held from 7 to 11 Novmeber 2007 at the historic Villa Mondragone in Frascati, some 20km south east of Rome.

It has been a time to meet old friends again and to make new ones. I have been part four of the five Greenaccord media forums since the first one was held in Rapolane Terme, in the Tuscany valley in northern Italy in 2002.

Greenaccord is the only regular (annual) meeting that I know of where practising journalists and media gatekeepers come together from all regions of the world to discuss the state of the planet and state of their profession.

Each year, we have some ‘regulars’ returning while new participants join the growing network. As some old hands noted this week, it is evolving into an extended family.

That family consists mainly of print and broadcast media journalists from Africa, Asia, Europe, Latin America and the Caribbean. Many are engaged in ‘deadline journalism’ of news and current affairs, while a few of us, like myself, have moved on to more reflective and analytical kind of journalism. We also have a few researchers, activists and public information officers among us, enriching our discussions with a diversity of perspectives.

To engage this group of participants over three and a half days, Greenaccord invites a dozen or so scientific or industry experts from different regions of the world and different disciplines. This year’s theme, ‘Capitalising on the Environment’, was explored by business leaders, fair trade activists, economists and a number of technical experts specialising in fields such as clean energy, clean technology and organic farming.

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As with all meetings, some speakers were far more interesting than others. And some sessions were blessed with competent chairpersons who kept overenthusiastic speakers in check and allowed meaningful discussion and debate to happen.

Sitting through such meetings is a bit like gem mining. One has to sift through a lot of gravel to find a rare precious gem. When that happens, it’s well worth the hassle.

Well, I’ve had my share of gravel moments (zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz!) and precious moments (Eureka!) this week. I’ll write separate blog posts on some of the latter. They are indeed worth sharing.

The real stars (or gems if you like) in this whole exercise are the participants themselves. We come from such diverse backgrounds – the sessions are supported by simultaneous interpretation in English, Spanish and Italian, with an occasional remark in French – that we enrich each other by simply being there.

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Some of us can barely contain our passion for what we do, and keep making comments or asking questions at every available opportunity. Others are more quiet during sessions but expressive during the many hours of networking and socialising over fine Italian wine, coffee and gastronomical treats. All these are part of Greenaccord’s cultural diversity that we contribute to, and then celebrate.

Even if we don’t take ourselves too seriously, we do discuss sobering issues. On the one hand, the planet is in peril, largely thanks to human bungling over generations. On the other, mass media itself is in crisis in many countries — under siege from oppressive governments, grappling with limitations of money and skills, and facing competition from new media platforms grabbing audiences and revenue.

For example, a colleague from Cameroon found the government closing down his privately owned FM radio station just a couple of days before he left for Rome. Others had worrying tales to share about official censorship, physical violence unleashed on media organisations and journalists, and the tension between media owners’ interests and the public interest.

We expressed solidarity and support for all Greenaccord colleagues currently experiencing difficulties of various kinds. The spirit of camaraderie in this network is strong – and keeps growing.

So is all this networking and meeting hopping a distraction from real work, which each one of us have to perform at our desks, or in our studios, on an individual basis? I don’t think so. Far from being a drag on my time, I find gatherings like Greenaccord inspiring and energising. They also remind me that I’m not alone in the daily struggle and drudgery of deadlines, government bureaucracies, funding crises and a never-ending race to keep up with new media technologies.

A planet in peril and a media in crisis need more platforms like this to connect and support many more of our kind who weren’t in Rome this week. Greenaccord isn’t perfect (we’re working on it), but it has lit more than a few candles against the looming darkness.

– Nalaka Gunawardene, Frascati, Rome: 10 November 2007

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Meeting photos courtesy Adrian Gilardoni’s Flickr account