Clean PR

Clean Tech. PR. Sustainable Business.

Green Q&A: Greentech Media’s Jennifer Kho

Greentech Media Logo

I think there’s some dust collecting on this blog. I set it aside to tour the country with my seven-month old son for six weeks. My first post since returning is with Jennifer Kho of the recently launched Greentech Media. I first met Jennifer last year when Text 100 was introducing its clean tech group. At the time, she was at still at Red Herring and was one of the few people reporting daily on green business topics. She was nice enough to sit down with us then to share her thoughts on the emerging clean tech industry. A year later, she has a great thing going at Greentech Media, which dubs itself as an “integrated online-media company comprised of cutting-edge news, in-depth market research, and focused industry events.”

Swain: I subscribe to a lot of green newsletters and RSS feeds and more seem to be popping up every day. Is there enough news to support all of the people writing about it?

Kho: Yes, I still think there is plenty of news left to cover (and uncover) in this area. The players are so diverse, involving energy, transportation, energy efficiency, energy management, water and air and so on, that I think a number of reporters are needed to cover the industry thoroughly.

Before you left Red Herring, was the number of pitches in your inbox still increasing or did it start to level off?

The number of pitches in my inbox was growing and is still growing, but many of the pitches I get are not really matched to what we cover at Greentech Media. For instance, I’ll get pitches about new hiking trails, attempts to save endangered species or regional environmental efforts not involving technology. Also, we’re noticing more “greenwashing” from companies that aren’t really focused in green technologies.

You were covering clean tech long before it hit today’s level of mainstream attention – how have things changed?

There’s certainly more mainstream interest. Now, cleantech comes up in the mainstream press every day. Politicians talk about it, we see new fundings almost daily and I no longer have to explain what solar power or ethanol is when I write about it – at least not every time. The public is getting more savvy, as are the companies. When I first started, few of the companies I talked to each day had public relations representatives. That has changed.

The news is coming from the tech, VC and energy industries, and when you add in verticals like building, auto and consumer products, things can get complicated. Are there specific sectors or areas you’re paying closer attention to than others?

Yes, we definitely see more of our news coming from the energy area right now – although we also are doing our best to add more coverage in other areas, like water and green IT – and readers also seem to be very interested in car technologies. We try to find a business angle for every story.

Unlike the technology industry, the success of many cleantech companies and products has a lot to do to do with public policy and changes in old industries that are notoriously slow and resistant to change. Do you think the reporting process for cleantech will change in the coming years?

Yes, as the industry starts to mature, I expect we will be moving from covering mostly new technologies and startups to covering more public companies and new applications for the technologies. Especially if, as some have speculated, there continues to be less money going into university and government research in these areas.

Do you have trouble finding the products, people and companies that have the potential to make a real difference?

I wouldn’t say I am seeing a shortage of companies with this potential. But whether they will be successful or not is anybody’s guess. We definitely will have winners and losers.

Rather than specific cleantech news and innovations, are you interested in hearing from companies who are applying these new technologies as part of a corporate social responsibility initiative?

As important as those initiatives are, we will be covering fewer of those types of stories, compared with news about new technologies. However, it’s still worth pitching us because we will occasionally cover those initiatives when they are very big or when they are surprising.

What are you seeing as big risks and challenges this sector has to overcome in the next five to 10 years?

The different parts of the sector are so diverse that they each have their own set of challenges to overcome. But, in general, I think companies will have to meet their promises, avoid too much hype and persuade legislators to approve greentech-friendly policies. One risk still is the historically volatile price of oil. Even though technologies like solar power don’t directly compete with oil, investors’ perceptions do tend to trade solar and other alternative-energy stocks higher when oil prices are high and lower when oil prices are low. Likewise, different parts of the greentech sector risk being influenced – for better or for worse – by the rest of the sector, so that if one piece disappoints, some investors might lose their enthusiasm for other parts of the sector.

The solar industry has already started to consolidate and I expect a lot more to come. Do you think other renewables/clean sectors will see the same thing as startups start to mature? If so, which sectors are next?

Yes, I think consolidation is a natural part of growth and maturity. This is already happening in wind power. Also, alternative cars and energy-efficient lighting are some areas where I expect we might see some consolidation once the technologies are ready. In fact, we already saw Hymotion get purchased by A123Systems, as an example.

Suggestions on how to work with you and what you look for in a story.

I am looking for stories involving both business and technology. That means story pitches should include elements of money and technology aiming to improve the environment. The product must be a technology, an innovative, fairly complicated piece of hardware or software. It also must be purposely created with some green intent. This focus on business and technology might well shift or expand as we grow, but it is what we’re looking for now.

As for working with me, the best way to reach me is to e-mail me at kho@greentechmedia.com. You also can call me at 510-268-9929. Obviously, notifying me early and giving me a scoop or an exclusive makes it more likely you will catch my attention. And if you do call, the best time is in the afternoon, when I’m off the daily deadline.

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September 24, 2007 Posted by | clean tech, environment, Journalist Q&As, media, public relations, venture capital | 2 Comments

Clean Tech Q&A: CNET’s Martin LaMonica

CNET LogoMost of us in technology communications have at some point crossed paths with Martin LaMonica at CNET. He has covered everything from application development to big Internet industry trends and news. For the past few years, he has cranked up his clean tech coverage to point where it is now part of his daily beat at one of the most popular sources for news on the Web. He comes at this emerging space from many perspectives and is one of the people that is making a real difference in keeping the public informed as the pieces connect in clean tech. Add him to your list of reporters to watch if he’s not already on it.

Swain: What was your first exposure to clean tech and sustainability issues?

LaMonica: I first wrote about “clean tech” back in 2004 when–guess what!–a PR person pitched me on a solar data center story which I eventually did because I had been interested in alternative energy media for a couple of years. Later in 2004, I did an interview with Nick Parker at the Cleantech Venture Network which gave me a broader perspective on clean tech. It was an important moment because I saw that the clean tech label was large enough to include all sorts of environmental-related technologies–not just solar and wind. I’ve cared about environmental protection for years means so I’ve been aware of sustainability issues.

I subscribe to a lot of green newsletters and feeds and more seem to be popping up every day. Is there currently enough news to support all of the people writing about it? Has the number of green-related pitches increased over the past few months or has it started to level off?

The number of green/clean tech pitches is definitely up in the past few months. It’s a bit early to say if things have leveled off yet. The rising pitch count is clearly a result of companies getting funding and marketing themselves. But even once the VC money slows down, the whole “green” movement won’t go away. It’s clearly becoming a mainstream/front page issue.

Obviously, there’s a lot of experimentation in green media–and I suspect not everyone will stick with it. I think the challenge for tech journalists–and PR folks too–is to get beyond the “clean tech company gets funding” stories that are so common now.

Between you and Michael Kannelos, you’ve been able to stay ahead of things in clean tech – did you start to focus on this topic because of a personal interest or did CNET see that you needed a solid channel covering news relating to business, sustainability and the environment?

I got into it purely out of personal interest but now it’s just part of what CNET covers. Michael’s got a good read on Silicon Valley VCs so he saw that energy/clean tech was a hot area and jumped on it.

Now, clean/green tech is an official part of my beat, rather than something I write about once in a while. Other CNET reporters cover green tech, too. We’ve also hired some high-profile people in the industry for the green tech channel on our Blog Network, so we’re committed to it.

The news is coming from the tech, VC and energy industries, and when you add in verticals like building, auto and consumer products, things can get complicated. Are there specific sectors or areas you’re paying closer attention to than others?

Yes, you could argue that the clean tech label is too broad. We don’t have very specific beats–yet, anyway. But I write about power generation technologies (solar, wind, biomass), fuels, financial stories, green buildings, and a bit of policy. Generally, I want a tech/innovation angle to a story, which is natural to me as I’ve covered IT for years.

Unlike the technology industry, the success of many clean tech companies and products has a lot to do with public policy and changes in old industries that are notoriously slow and resistant to change. On one side we have Web 2.0 and changing delivery models for software that allow startups to get moving and see success in a year or two with little up front capital. On the other, we have clean tech where things can move slowly and could take years if not decades to see real results. Do you think the reporting process for clean tech will change in the coming years when the industry starts to mature?

A lot of clean tech coverage these days is about start-ups trying cool things. These are great stories but at a certain point, if that’s all a media outlet is doing, it’s going to look shallow. We’re starting to see some stories about companies merging, failing to develop the technology they promised, or replacing CEOs. So I think the better media outlets will do these follow-up business stories.

Another thing that the better outlets will do is follow the larger issues and trends around clean tech. A lot of these new energy technologies have lots of tradeoffs–think biofuels and the whole food versus fuel debate, for example–that media outlets should try to cover.

Do you have trouble finding the products, people and companies that have the potential to make a real difference?

Clean tech is tricky in this regard. Many old ideas are being dusted off and tried again. And some of them–like solar thermal at utility scale–are totally viable. But then again, you run across claims from academics or entrepreneurs claiming to make “free energy” or enable the “hydrogen economy” tomorrow. So you have to be discerning. That said, I’m always looking for more great stories and interesting people who have the potential to make a difference.

Are you most interested in hearing from big technology companies, clean tech startups, or companies who are making investments in new technologies like solar or green data centers that can make their businesses more sustainable?

Startups tend to be the most fun because entrepreneurs are generally passionate about what they’re doing. But large corporations have a huge amount of weight and the money to invest in R & D, so I’d like to hear more from them. I haven’t done a lot of coverage of “sustainable business” practices but I think it’s got potential.

What should the clean tech community know about CNET?

We cover clean/green tech in various forms in different places. You’ll see more consumer oriented items in places like Crave or CNET.com while more of the business coverage at News.com and in the Blog Network.

Suggestions on how to work with you and what you look for in a story?

I’m always looking for news so timeliness is important. And in general, I’m looking for a tech-related story, although that’s not all I’ll do. It seems that certain areas got lots of attention, like solar these days, but I think I’m not afraid of less glamorous topics if it looks like it could have wide appeal. (I did a story on a combined heat and power home furnace and readers loved it.) Email’s generally the best way to pitch me.

July 23, 2007 Posted by | clean energy, clean tech, Journalist Q&As, public relations, sustainable business, venture capital | 1 Comment

Sustainable Business Q&A: Fortune’s Marc Gunther

Marc Gunther, Faith and Fortune

It wasn’t Marc Gunther’s columns at CNNMoney.com, articles in FORTUNE magazine or his four books that caught my attention. It was the regular attention he gives on his blog to many of the topics I’m paying attention to: CSR, sustainable business, energy and the environment. Gunther covers the impact of business on society from all angles. It’s not a new topic to him. He’s covered the underlying issues for years and has talked with many of the businesses and people that have impacted where we are today. I’m happy to share some of his thoughts with the readers of Clean PR.

Swain: A lot of large and small companies are starting from scratch with sustainability initiatives and are afraid to open the door to criticism by talking publicly; do you have any advice for when and how a company should approach this dilemma?

Gunther: The first thing you want to do is some homework, and then you want to start down the path to sustainability. No one’s there yet. No one’s perfect. Having said that, I’m a big believer in transparency, as well as in talking with people outside a company, including critics. You’ll get credit for openness. You’ll put a human face on your company. Your critics will appreciate being invited in. And you might get some good advice for free. Smart companies—Dell and Goldman Sachs come to mind—have told me recently that they have learned a lot by being open and talking about their business with NGOs.”

Some companies have successfully made sustainability part of their corporate brand identity; aside from having the products and business practices to substantiate the social responsibility message in their brand, are there any key things you’ve noticed some companies doing that separate them from the rest?

I don’t think there are a lot of companies, at least not big ones, that have made sustainability part of their brand identity. Starbucks, maybe, and Whole Foods are both admirable. Some small and mid-sized companies have also built brands around being green—Stonyfield Yogurt, Seventh Generation, Tom’s of Maine (which is now part of Colgate). I’m sure I’ve forgotten some. There are no secret strategies. You measure your impact on the environment, try to reduce your footprint, buy green power, promote recycling, sell organic products, and then tell the world what you are doing.

What role do you see technology playing in addressing the climate crisis; are you seeing some companies apply green technologies as a core component to their CSR practices? Any thoughts on which technologies or renewable sources of energy hold the most promise for corporate America?

I’m not an expert on either technology or renewables, but I’m told that many renewable energy sources have great potential. Everyone loves wind power, and it’s more economical than it used to be. The solar energy business (meaning PV installations to generate local electricity) is growing rapidly, thanks to some creative new business models. S.C. Johnson has done well by burning methane gas from a local landfill to generate electricity. PG&E Corp. is experimenting with everyone from wave power to cow power (burning manure) to plug-in electric hybrids. There are also big gains to be made in energy efficiency. Green building is taking off like crazy. It’s a very exciting time for renewable energy and once we get a tax or cap on greenhouse gases, things will only get better.

Some people have started to use the term greenwashing to describe a company who is exaggerating or misleading the public with their green credentials; how do you know the difference when you talk to a company? Also, when a company comes out making a big claim, do you check in with them at a later date to see that they are following through?

I probably don’t check back as much as I should. But when I find a company stretching the truth, I do try to report on it. Last fall, I wrote about Kimberly Clark which failed to keep its promises about sourcing pulp. Greenpeace tipped me off. I think some of the big investment banks can fairly be accused of talking bigger than they act. I don’t really care whether Citigroup buys recycled paper; I want to know whether they are underwriting coal plants.

Any thoughts about how the result of the 2008 elections could impact the progress of corporate sustainability?

I don’t think they will matter a lot. The big issue is regulation of greenhouse gases. It’s less and less a partisan issue—one leader has been Gov. Schwarzenegger. McCain and Lieberman sponsored a bill to regulate GHG.

Curiously, I think the absence of vigorous government regulation of business for most of the last 27 years has spurred CSR. Companies have stepped in to fill the gap.

There’s a combination of business, academia, government, non-profits and venture capital pushing this space ahead; is one group leading the way or is it a team effort?

NGOs are leading the way in the sense they are pushing change. They are also trusted by the public, for the most part. Business is close behind. I won’t be popular for saying this but I find that much of academia and government is irrelevant on these issues. There are exceptions, of course—people like Stu Hart at Cornell, CK Prahalad at Michigan, others at Berkeley, UNC and Yale have done great work and are influencing business. They’ve also taught me a lot, for which I’m grateful.

Have you heard from business leaders who read Faith and Fortune and became a more socially responsible business as a result?

Not so much business leaders as students or young people just getting into the business world. Some have written to me to say that they took away from the book the idea that they can make a positive difference in the world by working in corporate America. I’m a fan of groups like Net Impact and Business for Social Responsibility because they communicate that message.

Suggestions on how PR people can best work with you?

Well, I’ve been swamped with story pitches lately. If you don’t know me, a concise email to marc.gunther@gmail.com is the best way to get my attention. I try to respond to all emails to me (as opposed to mass emails.) I’m sorry to say that I can’t return all phone calls; if I did, I’d never get any work done.

My first, best piece of advice is to visit my website and blog at www.marcgunther.com to see what stories I write for the magazine and for CNNMoney.com. I’m far more interested in big brand-name companies than in startups, for example. Like most reporters, I want to do stories that are surprising, ideally with a little conflict or drama. Stories that get people talking, or blogging. Because I only do about six to eight stories a year for the magazine, I want to make each one special.

April 17, 2007 Posted by | blogging, clean energy, clean tech, global warming, green marketing, Journalist Q&As, public relations, sustainable business | 1 Comment

Clean Tech Q&A: Business 2.0’s Todd Woody

Business 2.0 LogoAs an assigning editor for Business 2.0’s green tech coverage and writer of the popular Green Wombat blog, Todd Woody is living the Bay Area green boom. He is no stranger to booms having experienced the party days at the Industry Standard before moving on to the San Jose Mercury News. Todd sat down with me for coffee a few weeks ago to talk about the current green business market. I was glad to have the opportunity – we’ve seen countless reporters move on to the sustainable business and clean technology beat but few bring a history in all the things making up this new industry: environment, technology, business, public policy and venture capital.

Swain: What was your first exposure to clean tech and sustainability issues?

Woody: While I covered environmental issues in the 1990s as a reporter, it was during the California energy crisis of 2000-2001 that I began to notice growing interest in solar energy and other green/clean tech issues. At the time I was a senior editor at The Industry Standard magazine and was assigning stories on alternative energy as California suffered brownouts and PG&E went bankrupt. By the time I became the business editor of the San Jose Mercury News in 2005, it was clear that a new boom was brewing as VC funding for green tech ventures began to take off.

You were covering environmental issues long before the current convergence of the tech, VC and energy industries; how have things changed?

I would say the biggest change has been the growing alliance between environmental groups and big business to tackle global warming and other issues. There’s a growing consensus that the market can be a mechanism to address such challenges. While Environmental Defense had taken a market-oriented approach to solving environmental problems back in the ‘90s, EDF – as it was known back then – the Natural Resources Defense Council and other big green groups were more inclined then to sue business and government for environmental law violations and lax enforcement. Now you have the extraordinary situation where Environmental Defense has hired an investment firm (Perella Weinberg Partners) to advise it on the takeover of Texas utility TXU. That’s because the private equity firms behind the acquisition of TXU gave ED a prominent place at the table in negotiating the deal. Roll over Rachel Carson.

There’s so much hype – do you have trouble finding the products, people and companies that have the potential to make a real difference?

In any boom there will be those companies that over-promise or are just selling pure hype. But unlike the dot-com boom, most green tech companies are dealing in hard technology and are often run by engineers and scientists who tend to be less prone to exaggeration and self-promotion. Of course, even companies that have promising technology still can fail or the technology may not live up to its potential. Nevertheless, you have to do your due diligence – particularly with companies that are offering services like carbon offsets – to verify their claims or substantiate their methodology.

Your Green Wombat blog gives you a chance to do a lot of high frequency original reporting – where do you go for information to make sure you stay ahead of things?

I subscribe to scores of RSS feeds from governmental agencies, companies and environmental groups. I attend conferences and I meet with people in the field. The great thing about being based in San Francisco is that the Bay Area is ground zero for green tech. Some of the major players are within walking distance of my office.

What should the clean tech community know about Business 2.0?

We consider this to be a huge and important story and we’re aggressively pursing it. In fact, I’m spending just about all my time on green tech issues, both as an assigning editor and as a writer/blogger.

Suggestions on how to work with you and what you look for in a story?

Always email me pitches as I don’t have time to take notes on a pitch made by phone. For both the blog and the magazine I’m looking for original stories, ideas or angles (the worse thing you can do is preface a pitch by saying “You may have seen the story on Company X in the Wall Street Journal…..”) If you’re pitching for the blog you have a lot more leeway. I’ll consider any relevant idea and am happy to meet with green tech people/companies. The key is timeliness. If there’s going to be a news announcement on, say, Wednesday, I want to know about it in advance and get all the relevant embargoed documents so I can have a post up when the news hits. If it’s already over the Internet, my interest falls rapidly. The print magazine is whole different story. You need to know what we’re about and what kind of stories we do. The original and unique rule holds but the bar is much, much higher to get into the magazine for obvious reasons. But whether you’re pitching for Business 2.0 or Green Wombat it’s essential you read the publication and target your pitches accordingly.

March 30, 2007 Posted by | clean energy, clean tech, Journalist Q&As, media, public relations, Silicon Valley, sustainable business, venture capital | 1 Comment