Aida Greenbury is managing director of sustainability and stakeholder outreach at Asia Pulp and Paper (APP), the controversial paper producer that last week pledged to halt deforestation across its Indonesian supply chain. 

The decision, hailed by environmental groups, follows a sustained Greenpeace campaign that has seen clients, including Lego, Mattel, Xerox, KFC and Disney, desert APP in droves. Last year, Greenpeace found that APP had used endangered trees that are of particular importance to rare Indonesian habitats in APP's operations. 

After a decade at the world's third-biggest paper company, Greenbury now oversees one of the most challenging mandates in the public relations world. Throughout, she has demonstrated a willingness to engage with critics, and this week's decision may yet vindicate her approach to APP's serious environmental issues.

In the aftermath of APP's landmark pledge, Greenbury discusses the company's gradual embrace of transparency, exploring the numerous public relations lessons she has learned - including the folly of greenwashing, the company's pragmatic PR approach, and the critical importance of NGO engagement. 

Why is APP more willing to cooperate with campaign groups now?

The Tropical Forest Trust (TFT) [which helped broker the deal] is not really a campaign group - it’s a non-profit organisation that has the experience to help companies clean up their supply chain to make sure the material is sourced sustainably. Their role is to guide us to help us improve our sustainability roadmap. We made this plan two years ago to enable us to set targets. When we created the first draft we knew there were a lot of gaps that we needed to address - and these gaps were mostly issues raised by the NGOs.

TFT could understand the demands of NGOs and translate it into policy for companies. That’s why we decided to engage TFT back in February 2012 - to enable us to bridge the gaps between our targets and NGO targets.

On June 5, 2012 we launched our sustainability roadmap publicly. The policy was clear but we knew we were lacking on the implementation side. We could not roll out across our supply chain at that time. We could only implement it in our own concessions and that was not enough.

APP is probably the largest paper producer in the world right now - to be a global leader we cannot have a policy that is halfway. TFT has been helping us close the gaps between our targets and NGO targets. Finally we made a decision back in December that we would end any act related to deforestation in our supply chain and we made the announcement a few days ago.

How big an impact do you think this will have on APP’s reputation?

We’re not doing this only for reputation. As a responsible company we need to take in input from our stakeholders, and in the past we didn’t really address that, we didn’t take in input from the NGO community. Secondly, as a global leader in the industry, we have to be known as the one that sets a new benchmark. Hopefully it will improve the perception about us and about Indonesia and the paper industry in general. A lot of people are talking about climate change but no real actions are made by private industries and companies.

What are the stakeholder engagement lessons you have learned throughout this process?

Possibly to have the right support. We as a corporate think in corporate ways and sometimes it’s totally different from the way civil society or NGOs are thinking. The targets and agenda are totally different and sometimes in the corporate world we do not totally understand that. We need support to bridge this gap. That’s the role TFT is playing. As a result we’ve been receiving very constructive input from Greenpeace, to make sure our policy is in line.

You've previously had a very adversarial relationship with Greenpeace. Is it possible to work together with them?

I wouldn’t call it working together. Greenpeace are campaigners - they don’t really collaborate with companies. But they know what’s going on in the world and the bigger picture in terms of the environment. It’s very important for companies to start listening to them.

How has your PR agency relationship with Cohn & Wolfe helped this process?

We’ve been working with Cohn & Wolfe and other WPP agencies for the past two years, in that time they have been our close partners. In general I had good and bad experiences with communication agencies before. My lesson for the industry would be that any communications agencies need to be more sensitive to the dynamics of the company, and what kind of changes the company is going through. Sometimes we need to be a little more sensitive not to have too many journalists or media making hype which can be classified as greenwashing.

Agencies need to understand that we cannot ignore issues which have been raised by NGOs, by sending out information which is not related to the issue that they are raising. 

It’s worrying if PR firms are focused on greenwashing rather than addressing the issues.

PR agencies need to understand their role. It think the word PR should be banished, banned as it has such bad connotations. The role of communications agencies needs to be adjusted, they need to understand the business, they need to widen their knowledge and scope a little bit more to keep up with this. 10 years ago, companies can sell products because of cheap price and quality. Now, people want to buy products which are responsibly made and responsibly sourced. Communications agencies need to understand the way this is moving.

What are the reputation risks if you don’t stick to this commitment?

It’s a huge risk. We need to stick to this commitment. But, at the same time we can’t also overpromise. When we announced the policy we clearly stated it is radical and aggressive but to implement it is not going to be easy. I’m pretty sure we are going to face issues, challenges on the ground. That’s why we urge other stakeholders to help us monitor, observe and implement this on the ground. The key thing here is we need to be open and transparent. That’s why we have set up an independent observer team, to make sure everything we do receives input from these stakeholders, so they will be able to see the challenges on the ground.

Do you feel this decision reflects an improved public relations sensibility at APP boardroom level, a recognition that behaviour must match rhetoric?

It’s not really correct to say behaviour didn't match the messaging. I think what happened in the past is we didn’t fully understand the expected behaviour we were expected to have. The messaging was sincere but it reflected the misunderstanding between the two. We do now - that’s why we are very thankful for the role TFT has played.

How important is it that this understanding of expected behaviour comes from the top, rather than just residing in the public relations or sustainability department?

It is very important. All divisions have to be one, have to understand. Sustainability is not just about the environment, it’s about the whole thing. Everybody needs to understand the goals and objectives we want to achieve and this understanding has to be pushed from the most top position.

Are the best public relations decisions made for pragmatic reasons, ie to recover lost clients?

That’s one of the reasons. But this decision is not only made because of pressure from the market or customers. There were three key stakeholders who pushed this - the customer, the NGOs and, thirdly, most important, the internal push. We realised that, without adopting a more stringent policy, we as a business will not survive and not be sustainable. For example, we have 3m hectares under our supply chain. If a plantation doesn't have proper or healthy conservation areas, the plantation itself will suffer, so it will not be sustainable or economically viable for us to manage that.