At the end of last year, Mumbrella visited the Jakarta headquarters of Asia Pulp & Paper (APP), the Sinar Mas-owned logging giant that in early 2013 pledged to stop clearing indigenous Indonesian rainforest after years of pressure from green groups in one of the biggest corporate PR claims in recent times.

Two years ago, APP made a landmark deforestation pledge, prompting The Holmes Report to interview the company's MD of sustainability and stakeholder communications Aida Greenbury, about APP's gradual embrace of transparency.

In this new Q&A with Mumbrella Asia’s editor Robin Hicks, Greenbury talks about the business pressures that led to APP’s ‘zero deforestation’ policy, the communications strategy behind telling the company’s story, and how to earn trust among wary environmental pressure groups.

So, how is APP’s zero deforestation policy going, and how well do you feel that APP’s story is being received by stakeholders, including green groups whom you’ve battled for a decade?

Since we’re such a big company – one of the largest pulp and paper firms in the world – adopting a new policy is not easy. The fact that we are gradually implementing the zero deforestation policy is something people should acknowledge. We’re trying to change the way the forestry industry operates not just in Indonesia, but beyond this country, and the implications of this are massive.

Do you think that stakeholders believe your story?

I don’t like to see it as a story – it’s a journey. It’s about taking people along with us, and making them believe in our journey. Our policy is about blatant honesty and transparency – which no one else in the forestry industry is doing. We have put our forestry concessions on our website, and people can monitor us on Google Earth. It’s the only way to make our journey believable. We wouldn’t have received support from NGOs or the government if we weren’t doing what we what we say we would. The best PR strategy for a company like ours is honesty. No more ads. No more jargon. We had to open up our operations and let people in.

Watch Greenbury talk at an event to mark the one year anniversary of APP’s zero deforestation policy, where she says that the event was not about “seeking endorsement” from critics – Greenpeace and WWF part of the panel debate. WWF Indonesia’s spokesman said APP has a “history of making promises and breaking them.”

Tell us about the moment when APP decided to adopt the zero deforestation policy. It wasn’t a moral decision, was it? It was purely a business decision prompted by some of your customers ending their contracts due to pressure from NGOs, right?

Sceptics said our zero deforestation policy was a business decision, and it was – because deforestation is no longer accepted in the industry. It’s the new business normal. Frankly, if we didn’t do this, our business will not be sustainable. It’s not just about stopping the chainsaws, it’s about protecting high-carbon stock. And with that, comes protection of the environment, the forest and the animals that live there.

APP, with you leading the charge, have taken a leadership position for the forestry industry. Do you think others will now follow you?

Before we announced our policy, in 2011 our sister company Golden Agri-Resources (a Singapore-based palm oil firm) developed a Forest Conservation Policy with the Indonesian government and The Forest Trust. We followed soon afterwards. But unfortunately no one from the pulp and paper industry has dared to take similar action, at least in Indonesia. Some are trying to adopt zero deforestation overseas, and are slowly getting there.

Has APP’s business recovered since the adoption of the zero deforestation policy?

Yes, absolutely. Some the big brands, such as Nestle and Staples, have come back.

Can you tell us a bit about the thinking behind APP’s communications strategy?

I look at it in two different ways, from a personal and professional perspective. APP has a Twitter account, and so do I. But I’m not just face of APP. I was born into a forestry family, and I have a degree in forestry science. It’s in my blood and in my heart.

Implementing a new policy like this is difficult – it’s an uphill battle. The industry will fail if something big is not done, such as changes in government regulation. Some of my individual Twitter communications are about pushing government and other industry players to do more. Without them on board, it will be impossible for our policy to succeed fully.

The simplest example is in peat management [Indonesia has some of the world’s richest tropical peat land, which is a powerful carbon sink]. Every year, we see forest fires and the burning of land – living in Singapore you’d know a lot about this. It doesn’t matter how sustainable a forest management policy is in one concession. If it is implemented in isolation, it will not succeed.

A contact at an NGO told me recently that at conferences you sound more than a campaigning NGO than a representative of a paper company. What do you make of that comment?

We really want everyone to be on board. The difference between myself and others who comment on forestry issues is that I live it and I breathe it. NGOs can leave and go back to their homes or work on other programs, but I’m up to my neck in it. NGOs are saying I sound like one of them? Well, I have to live with this. I have been in forestry all my life and I’ve seen everything with my own eyes. I have a different perspective from someone sitting in New York sipping their latte and commenting from afar.

How confident are you that the zero deforestation policy is on the right track?

We are committed to stop converting natural forest. That has been achieved, although there have been one or two accidents in the past. Our suppliers in Riau [a province in Sumatra where paper firms are particularly active] had natural forest conversation going on in their concession, as the guidelines had not been set up properly. That happened in March/April 2013 – they accidentally cut down areas of high carbon stock.

How can you accidentally cut down a forest?

The ‘High carbon stock’ concept is something invented by Greenpeace in 2012. It provides a baseline for a the tool kit used to assess the carbon value of a forest. I sit on the High Carbon Stock steering committee with Greenpeace and other NGOs, and we are still defining the tool kit. It’s a new approach and we’re trying to make sure that when it is implemented accidents don’t happen. In the case I mentioned earlier, we didn’t know how to delineate the area, and that led to an area of high carbon stock being cut down. But we voluntarily exposed what happened to the public.

The most difficult part is that there are factors beyond our control. There is still illegal encroachment happening, where natural forest is being converted. We’ve done everything that we should – we report encroachment to authorities. But what else can you do? We’re not the police or the government. Slash and burn activity is not under our control, although sometimes it goes on inside our concessions. There are factors that we can’t control completely.

Do you think the message is sinking in?

We’re getting there. On a scale of one to 10 of confidence in what we’re doing, I would say we’re at level six. We’re introducing something totally new, full of innovations such as setting benchmarks for zero deforestation. This will take time, and those who are not close to the issue are still trying to grapple with what it all means. It’s hard to explain to laymen. It’s easier to explain to a procurement director.

Which agencies do you work with?

We work with many PR agencies around the world – most are under the WPP group [among them is Cohn & Wolfe, whose head of corporate affairs Geoff Beattie spoke to Mumbrella about the importance of brand authenticity and the death spin in an interview late last year]. But not all are focused on sustainability. For that, I rely on Robertsbridge Group, which is led by Brendan May. For the first two years since introducing the zero deforestation policy, we’ve not been focusing on reaching the masses, rather those closely linked to sustainability issues. We figured that if we can make those stakeholders understand what we’re doing, then the word will spread out. But how to communicate this message to the John Does on the street? We will have to make the message simple and easy to understand.

So you plan to launch a campaign to talk about the zero deforestation policy next year?

Yes. We want to humanise what we have to say around high conservation values and high carbon stock and make it less technical. We’re still developing the strategy, so I can’t say much more than that. We want to communicate an umbrella message, an overarching message and pick with messages that are are suitable for certain regions. What is communicated in Australia will be totally different to what we say in Japan.