How to spin a crisis Greenpeace style

First published in Fairfax Unlimited 9 September 2014

Greenpeace loves to be in the news. And given the correlation between charity brand awareness and funds generated, it has good reason to aim for headlines.

As far back as I can remember, Greenpeace has received enviably long column inches that other not-for-profits could only dream of. That’s certainly no easy feat. In Australia there are over 59,000 charities vying for limited funds with 2000 new charities registered in 2013 alone. New Zealand has 27,392 with an annual income of $15,724 million – thank you NZ Charities Services website.

It’s a crowded market with almost total reliance on donations from households, governments and corporate entities. (Greenpeace claim not to take donations from governments or companies.)

To this day, rightly or wrongly, when I think of Greenpeace I immediately envision some wild-looking, lanky-haired, euphoric protestor being taken away in handcuffs having tied himself to a whale – or something.

But I imagine this is, perhaps, the kind of brand association Greenpeace is  keen to break.

But that’s the thing about brands – the organisation doesn’t always get to control the message.

This week, however, Greenpeace reminded us why it is a savvy media player by showing its ability to control the message.

In one of the most bizarre stories to come out this year, it turns out that Greenpeace USA’s 2015 nature calendar features photos by none other than Alain Mafart, a name that is, surely, embedded into the national psyche of every Kiwi that was more than five years old in 1985. The same guy who bombed the Rainbow Warrior made it into a Greenpeace calendar that included only 12 photographs, sourced from an image bank that must have, literally, held millions of photos by thousands of photographers.

Instead of burying their heads in the sand and panicking about how on Earth to wrangle their way out of this one, Greenpeace did what every confident brand does. It spun that baby right into the international press and came out looking like the good guys.

There are two ways this story could have gone for a behemoth international brand like Greenpeace. Had they tried to hide the gaffe and quietly buy the calendars out of stock, hoping to hell the story doesn’t leak, they ran the risk of more headlines about yet another charity wasting donors’ hard-earned money. But by taking the other approach, and embracing the ridiculousness of the situation and going for full disclosure, they shifted the narrative to be about a shocking wrong that was righted by Greenpeace

In fact, the media release introduced a new villain by ever so skilfully redirecting blame to the calendar’s US publishing company, Workman.

We learn that Workman “refused to recall the calendar unless it was reimbursed $US250,000,” that Greenpeace then “returned all royalty payments for the 2014 calendar” and have even decided to end their business relationship with them.

Greenpeace weighed up the value of the payoff versus the value of the brand to survive a PR crisis and surmised that, this particular disaster, was a cinch. (In fact, it kind of fits with its slightly bawdy brand, no?) Crisis averted and column inches gained. Greenpeace brand awareness raised, donations no doubt increased and PR prowess maintained.