PR: the real lesson in Toshiba's No-Print Day
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By James Matthews-Paul
15 June 2012
Print needs to prove its worth as a medium at the heart of modern life
Most bandwagon-style campaigns are doomed to failure and find their legacy in several months' worth of retweets, Facebook shares and e-mail forwards which habitually provide some face-screwing and a muttering of 'oh dear; oh deary me'. And the printing industry has, quite rightly, done just that to Toshiba's foolhardy National No-Print Day, proposed for October 23rd to 'recognise the contribution of trees'.
Various eminent print pundits (including the inimitable Andy Tribute on WhatTheyThink and bloggers from The Digital Nirvana and Dead Tree Edition) have made excellent points about Toshiba's greenwash-flavoured error. How does it quantify what is wasted paper and what isn't? Has it considered that paper is fundamentally renewable by dint of being replantable? Has it done its homework about supply chain sustainability, given that it primarily manufactures electronics?
These issues are identified quite rightly by these print industry writers, and several others. But as Heidi Tolliver-Walker points out, we are pretty terrible at communicating to non-print people the actual, tangible green qualifications of print.
Let's face it: print has a dreadful image. Most people think of printers as wanton tree-murderers who would drown the family's pet rabbit in the nearest drum of magenta if they thought they could turn a quick buck on it. They see print as wasteful, picturing the spam-laden direct mail they swear at as it flaps uselessly onto their doormat, and streets heaving with unwanted freesheets, dime-a-dozen flyers and paper inserts. They curse at the sixteen layers of outer packaging applied to any given supermarket product, considering it wasteful. They roll their eyes when they are forced to consume advertising because they feel nobody's bothered to try and align it to what they actually want. They don't think about replanting or recycling, or the advantages of digital workflows on minimising waste; they think we would be a much happier, greener world if printing upped sticks and died altogether.
This will be an uncomfortable sentence to stomach, but I'm afraid it's true: print is arrogant as an industry. It has assumed, for decades, that everybody needs print, and therefore every corner of it is safe. This arrogance is embodied better by nobody than publishers (and B2B publishers in particular), and explains why that sector suddenly feels hard done by as the sea-change of consuming media electronically (and more conveniently) has knocked them all off their perches. It's a bit like the crude industry: it's seen as filthy and highly profitable at the expense of the environment and humanity itself, so the general public will cheer enthusiastically when receiving news that it has been kicked in the goolies.
Print has, pretty much, failed to do its own PR. The rhetoric needs to change from the miserable time everyone's having with the reduction in print volume. We need to talk about how we're getting better, smarter, faster and less wasteful at producing everything from bank statements to billboards. We have to enthuse people about on-demand printing and personalisation, and make people want to be told about cool new opportunities. Perhaps we should drop the word 'advertising' altogether and talk about communication – the visceral, intrinsic quality of print to provide texture, style and charisma, and therefore an identity. We should talk about its future career rather than bemoaning where it was decades ago, and we should convince people that it's not going to go away – not because it's some old codger of an industry that refuses to budge, but because it has a vital, unbudgable role that it does better than, say, an iPad. And we should enthuse people about all the cutting-edge technologies for which print is the sole method of transmission – electronic interfacing, intelligent packaging, organic self-lighting board – that will change the way we live for the better.
There seems to be some notion that this is someone else's responsibility, but it's the job of us all. A huge part of it, too, is listening: nobody seems to have taken on board what consumers actually want to consume as a printed product, and nobody is asking the adults of the future what they think print's role would be.
In order to survive, we need to print what people need and want, not what we think they do. If we're able to do that, open-mindedly and receptively, we may well find consumers banging print's sustainability drum rather than having to do it ourselves.
And one last thing: don't send me messages trying to educate me about the benefits of print. I'm not the one that needs convincing.
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