Five mistakes food and drink brands make when pitching sustainability stories to journalists

By Julia Glotz.

Getting coverage for sustainability stories can be tough. As green initiatives rise up corporate agendas, more and more brands are jostling for coverage of their sustainability efforts: and many are left disappointed when their efforts aren’t recognised in the press.

So how do you make an impact with sustainability stories in such a competitive environment? And what are the dos and don’ts to look out for?

Over the past nine years, I have been on the receiving end of hundreds of sustainability pitches. Here are the five most common mistakes I have seen brands make.

Mistake 1: Ignoring basic news values

Lots of pitches say things like, ‘Company X is doing some really great work with their suppliers on plastic packaging’ or ‘More than half of the energy used by Company Y now comes from renewable sources’.

That’s lovely, but it’s not a story.

If you want a journalist to cover your sustainability initiative, you need to do more than tell them it exists. You need to give them a compelling reason to write about it right now.

Finding that reason comes down to two basic storytelling principles: conflict and change. The better job you do of identifying and highlighting elements of conflict and change within your sustainability story, the greater your chances of getting coverage.

Ask yourself:

  • What is new?
  • Is it a (meaningful) first?
  • Why does this matter?
  • Why is this relevant right now?
  • What is at stake?
  • How is it different from what other people are doing?
  • How does it conflict with what other people are saying?
  • How does it fit in with wider company/sector strategy and targets?

Yes, sustainability is important. And yes, sustainability stories are increasingly important to publications. But that doesn’t mean brands get to play to different rules when pitching. Fundamentally, sustainability stories still need to function as stories or they won’t earn coverage.

Mistake 2: Expecting a pat on the back

If you and your team have been working hard behind the scenes to make your business more sustainable, you can be forgiven for craving some recognition. A bit of public acknowledgement can be a great morale booster, after all, and might even inspire others to follow in your footsteps.

This is all perfectly understandable, but editorial coverage is not the place to look for pats on the back.

While most publications will be happy to highlight good, interesting work, journalists are not there to be your cheerleaders. Their job is to question and inform.

This can feel rather uncomfortable, but it is essential to creating credible sustainability coverage that readers will read and take seriously.

With accusations of ‘green-washing’ never far away, even the best, most inspirational work must stand up to scrutiny. Save the feel-good stuff for awards nights and focus on proving your story really is worth the coverage. 

Mistake 3: Throwing random data at pitches

Editors and readers love data, so including plenty of data should in theory boost your chances of getting coverage. In most sustainability pitches, however, I find data creates as many problems as it solves.

By far the most common problem is when brands expect data to do the storytelling for them. Data is great, it can boost your credibility and enhance your story, but it’s not enough on its own. The facts do not speak for themselves. You have to tell readers (and journalists) why your facts and your data matter.

In other words, you need basic storytelling to make your data come to life. Instead of offering up random figures in isolation, put them in context. Look for trends, year-on-year comparisons and, where possible, state how your figures compare with what is happening elsewhere in the industry.

Most importantly, be clear about what your data tells readers – and why they should care.

Side note: Putting data in context doesn’t mean being patronising. I know few journos who respond well to comparisons with football pitches, swimming pools, double-decker buses, trips to the moon or similar. That sort of stuff will earn you plenty of eyerolls in most newsrooms.

Mistake 4: Avoiding shades of grey

Some of the most compelling storytelling I’ve seen on sustainability happens when brands open up about their mistakes and missteps.

I know that sounds scary, but hear me out. One of the biggest challenges you will face in getting coverage for your sustainability work is credibility.

Sustainability PR can seem like one long string of high-fives. So many amazing commitments and pledges! So many targets met! So much progress all the time!

Yet everybody knows sustainability is hard work. Everybody knows brands don’t always get it right. So when you take out all nuance, refuse to talk about your mistakes and insist on presenting only the highlights reel of your sustainability journey, your credibility takes a hit.

I’m not suggesting you go out of your way to highlight your shortcomings, but adding a bit of light and shade here and there can do wonders for your ability to make an impact.

Your successes will seem all the more impressive if you allow readers and journalists to see what it took to get there.

Mistake 5: Refusing to put up senior execs for interview

Interviews are a good strategy for increasing your share of voice in general, but they are especially important for sustainability pitches. Yet I find brands curiously unwilling to put up senior names for sustainability stories.

Press releases, yes. Written answers, yes. Generic statements that can be attributed to a CEO, yes. Heavily orchestrated speeches at conferences and events, yes.

But actual conversations with a journalist? Not so much.

This is a big missed opportunity. Senior execs can significantly boost your cut-through with editorial teams; plus, making members of your senior team available signals sustainability is a priority for the entire business and not just a niche concern.

(And if you really don’t have any senior execs who are willing or can be trusted to provide non-scripted answers on sustainability, do you have much of a story to tell in the first place?)

Sustainability is rising up the agenda in newsrooms as much as within corporates. There are more opportunities than ever for brands to tell their stories, but increased competition also means coverage is harder to come by.

The time for safe sustainability stories is gone. But for brands willing to be transparent, authentic, accessible and a little bit brave, there is everything to play for.

Julia Glotz (pictured) is a freelance writer and editor specialising in food and drink. She was previously managing editor of The Grocer.

Pelican Communications is a specialist in the environment & CSRfoodpackaging & logistics and trade association sectors and offers a range of services such as strategy, design, content creation, public relations and people developmentContact us for marketing and communications expertise.

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