Last week, communications veteran Ben Finzel announced the launch of a new firm called Renew PR, which will focus on energy and environmental consulting work under the tagline “restoring common sense to communications.“
Finzel, who describes himself on Twitter as a “DC native and gay politico,” has a long history in both PR and politics: he served as legislative director for Representative Bill Richardson (later Governor of New Mexico) and held senior positions at the Washington-area offices of Edelman, FleishmanHillard, Widmeyer Communications, and Waggener Edstrom before joining boutique firm Glen Echo Group as an EVP in 2014.
We spoke to Finzel this morning about the future of PR, lobbying, and environmental advocacy.
1. Hi, Ben. What will your new firm focus on, and why did you choose to launch it now?
Renew PR fits with what I’ve seen in the D.C. marketplace. There will always be a place for large, multi-office teams (I’ve done that before myself), but increasingly I see high-profile corporate clients who want counsel from folks who actually do the work as well; they want executions. That’s one of the main reasons I launched this firm, because it fits with my background and my experience.
The challenge of communications in an increasingly complex and diffuse world lies in taking the most cumbersome message and making it simple and clear. It’s about execution and outreach based on four principles: truth, clarity, engagement, cooperation. To me, those mean strategy, messaging, media, and partnerships.
Energy/environmental focus is what I’m known for in Washington; I served as communications director at the Department of Energy, and I specialize in the intersection between policy and communications. We will focus on the comms marketplace rather than government relations because I work well with lobbyists, but I’m not one and I never have been.
Why did I launch it now? I’m seeing a real client-side interest in media and strategic assistance: they want to go back to the beginning and figure out what to do. People in D.C. are thinking, “I have a discrete project and need someone who knows the issues and does the work: pitch media, manage messages, etc.”
2. What did you make of the recent Center for Public Integrity study on PR as “the new lobbying?“
I’m not surprised by the reporting: now, more than ever, communications drives policy. More Americans are paying attention to what happens in Washington, but few understand what it means — so it’s PR’s job to explain clearly and simply what’s going on. The more confusing things seem, the more important it is to be clear and substantive.
Bruce Springsteen sang “57 Channels and Nothin’ On” in 1992, and it’s even truer today: we have all these media outlets, but it’s harder to get coverage and break through.
3. What do “green” brands need to do today to get their messages across?
I love to quote lyrics, so I’ll quote Cheryl Lynn: “Got to Be Real.” It’s not about “I have news, I’m a brand, pay attention” — it’s more about how that news is relevant to the current conversation.
Targeting the message is key: you have to be not just relevant but also work with others via partnership and collaboration. Whether we’re talking recycling, reducing emissions, or using energy more efficiently, it’s not just about you — it’s about your role in the broader picture.
Now we see lots of opportunities for companies to work with NGOs, advocacy groups, etc. Enterprise, UPS, and Virgin are good examples; even the NFL has been working with folks like NRG to make its stadiums more efficient.
The trick is: how to apply that to the audience and engage with others so it’s not just you (or your client) talking about yourself.
4. What’s the current and future status of “the green movement?”
It has become a consumer movement; it’s less about politics and more about specific impacts. The “mainstream community,” if you will, wants affordable power but would rather not poison the planet to get it. What was “green” ten years ago is now mainstream as we’ve gone from polluting rivers to establishing an EPA and championing technologies that will help us do more with less.
The challenge is that the politics are behind the people in many ways on tough questions like fossil fuels, climate change, and access to energy in the developing world. Since Congress isn’t moving on these issues, leadership comes from federal agencies and states as well as corporations, advocacy groups, and alliances. THEY are the ones moving the ball forward.
The public wants something else, but the rub lies in defining what that “something” is. This is where communications comes in, and in that way it’s more important than ever before.
5. What advice would you give to developing PR pros with a passion for all things green?
First things first: get experience. In the late 90s, I worked with a client as a member of President Clinton’s Council on Sustainable Development, which was still seen as “out there” in 1998. I remember trying to pitch reporters at the time and it took almost five minutes to get the name of the report out.
Since then, it’s gone from being a novelty to everyone talking about CSR and sustainability. The bar is now higher because you have to have something substantive to talk about…and with that substance comes the expectation that communications people know their stuff.
It’s not a “light and fluffy” story: do your research and have a solid background in your specialization.