Green Business: Greenhouse Public Relations

| 2nd August 2011
green headlines
Anna Guyer has made a name for her company by only taking clients with impeccable green credentials and refusing to ‘greenwash’ big brands. Peter Salisbury met her to find out more

The majority of journalists have, at one point or another, had a bad experience with a PR agency. Whether it’s the new graduate who calls incessantly despite your patent lack of interest in a product that is completely unsuitable for the publication you work for, or the bullying corporate officer who doesn’t like the ‘tone’ of a piece you have written; sometimes just the sight of a well-worn caller ID can be enough to force a sigh. And it isn’t just the denizens of Fleet Street who can sometimes find PR difficult to fathom. With accusations of greenwash flying around, consumers too are wary of the PR industry and wonder how much of what they’re being told is truth. But just as not every journalist is Clive Goodman in disguise, not every PR is out to obscure the truth.

Anna Guyer, founder of Greenhouse PR, is one of those people. She knows her brand, her business, and her clients inside out, and has a real enthusiasm for her work – representing those businesses for whom being green isn’t just a marketing trick but a central part of their work. Her passion for the ethical, sustainable and organic entrepreneurs she works tirelessly to make more visible, means that it impossible to know if you are being pitched or having a conversation.

During our chat, she returns again and again to some of her favourite clients - talking more about them than her own company. Guyer ‘loves’ Dale Vince, founder of renewable energy firm Ecotricity, and enthuses about his plans to build a nationwide network of green energy-fuelled recharging stations for electric cars. She can’t believe how positive a social and environmental impact Triodos bank is having. Howard Johns of solar panel installation company Southern Solar has ‘green DNA’.

Guyer is, in more ways than one, an evangelist for all things green. A lifelong Christian, a key moment came a few years ago at a church event. ‘I believe that God asked us to become custodians of the planet,’ she says unabashedly. ‘It was a video from Tearfund which convinced me that I wanted to go into green things. They showed a farmer who couldn’t farm - it was either so hot that the earth was dry and cracked, or it was raining so hard that it flooded. It’s a crisis, and we need to do something about it.’

Speaking over the phone from the small office in Wimborne, Dorset, which she renovated with G-Plan furniture from Ebay, Guyer says that she didn’t always focus on the environmental side of life. At the end of the year 2000 she was at the zenith of a long, and extremely successful career in corporate PR. A board member at a global PR behemoth, Hill & Knowlton, she worked with corporate clients including the mobile phone maker Motorola and UK telecoms firm BT. After a decade of jetting around the globe, she finally realised that her collection of air miles was becoming excessive when she went for the world’s most expensive cup of coffee.

‘I flew to San Francisco for a coffee,’ she says. ‘I was meant to go out to do this big presentation but when I got there the woman who I was supposed to meet asked if we could just do it over a cup off coffee. Then, I wanted to go and see the city for a day but I was just too tired. I thought: there must be more than this.’ A stint in Brussels at public affairs firm Ogilvy Adams & Reinhart, now Ogilvy Public Relations, working with the EU on aid programmes was a turn in the right direction, but she got sucked into too much administrative work for her own liking.

‘I loved the idea of the campaigning but my role became preparing the tender proposals - strategy, ideas and budgets - rather than being out in the field implementing the programme,’ she says. ‘That was the cause of my frustration. Greenhouse gave me the chance to get back into the “doing” again.’ Guyer decided to take some time out. It was during her career break that she became more aware of the issues around organic products, thanks largely to her three children.

Her sabbatical also served to show her that you could take girl out of PR, but not the PR out of the girl. A stint volunteering for a literacy charity in Peckham led to her taking over their press. ‘One you have done it,’ she says, ‘it’s always there.’ A family move to Dorset brought Guyer into contact with Neal’s Yard Remedies, who set up their ‘eco-headquarters’ in the area. While the owner, Romy Fraser, was initially skeptical about the need for a press officer, she first brought Guyer in to take care of local PR as a consultant and then all of the company’s national press.

Guyer believes that her passion for what the company was doing helped her to sell herself to Neal’s Yard. ‘I persuaded them that it was a public duty to inform people about it,’ she says. In 2005, Peter Kindersley, founder of the local Sheepdrove farm, one of the country’s first organic farms, bought Neal’s Yard. It was his head of communications, Steve McIvor, who eventually convinced Guyer to set up her own agency.

‘He suggested I set up an agency to meet the needs across brand, environmental and ethical campaigning and beauty product PR,’ she says. ‘He could find specialists in one area but not an agency which could provide all three at an equally high standard.’ In 2010, following Guyer’s Damascene conversion at church, her Spring Consultancy was rebranded as Greenhouse, and started focusing increasingly on working with smaller, up-and-coming businesses with immaculate eco-credentials which couldn’t afford to do their own PR in-house. A focus on brand-building and social media, along with work with the mainstream press, has yielded impressive results for a small firm.

The company has grown slowly but surely over the past few years. As of 2011, Greenhouse employs eight people who are dotted across southern England in a ‘virtual network’. They all work from home or at the Hub, a ‘hotdesking’ and conference facility at King’s Cross, when they need to meet with clients or one another. Although Guyer concedes that working from home uses more energy, she counters that all of Greenhouse’s staff use green energy providers, adding that energy is saved from avoiding the daily commute, not to mention the hour or so which would otherwise be wasted.

Revenues are an unspectacular £300,000 a year but overheads are virtually nil and Guyer and her employees earn similar amounts to the salaries they would draw at major PR firms. Just as important, Guyer says, is that everyone who works at Greenhouse is genuinely passionate about the issues it deals with. Greenhouse would like to grow the business in the coming years, Guyer says, but only if they can find the right staff and the right clients.

‘I can imagine a team of 15-20 people,’ she explains, but ‘good people are hard to find. I would love to grow the business; I’d like to find two or three good, solid businesses we could work with and grow with. But we don’t want to become a massive, multimillion pound business. We are not driven by big financial targets for growth, or growth for growth's sake but we are motivated to grow the business to support and promote more businesses trying to make a real difference.’

As a parting comment, Guyer says that it sometimes shocks people at other PR firms that Greenhouse often turns opportunities down if they don’t agree with the way a company works or suspect that they are just trying to greenwash their credentials rather than being interested in brokering genuine change. ‘People tell me what I could have a bigger impact by working with a big business but it is difficult to ascertain how big that change is and how much a business means it,’ she muses. ‘If there was a big, big company who really wanted to change the way they worked, we would consider it.’

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