They’re speaking out in their roles as experts in sustainability and advocates dedicated to climate justice. They’re fed up with being asked to participate in sustainability campaigns by public relations (PR) and advertising agencies that work with fossil-fuel corporations to spread climate denial and misinformation. And, so, they’re speaking out, demanding that the world’s largest PR firm, Edelman, drop companies that deny climate change. They say it’s time to stop promoting the agenda of the world’s worst polluters.
Several private conversations with Edelman requesting that the PR firm drop fossil fuel-promoting clients led nowhere. Those talks took place after Clean Creatives, a campaign pushing PR firms and ad agencies to cut fossil fuel ties, revealed Edelman had a secret role in promoting an ExxonMobil ad campaign opposing climate policy.
The letter, signed by over 100 climate justice advocates and creators, challenges Edelman in particular to relinquish Big Oil clients.
“Given the stakes, we are now going public with our demand to Edelman: drop ExxonMobil and all other fossil-fuel clients. Ending advertising and PR for fossil-fuel companies is a crucial step toward climate justice.”
What is Edelman?
If you’ve never heard of Edelman before, you’re not alone. The world’s largest PR firm, it works behind the scenes conducting more marketing campaigns for fossil fuel interests than any global PR agency. Its website variously promotes “earning trust through communications,” fostering the “belief-driven employee,” creating approaches to “reignite civic engagement,” and ideas for companies to respond to “racist origins” of texts.
Edelman presents a positive public face by showcasing its work for placid-looking brands like Heinz and Starbucks. Yet duplicity reigns: Edelman often invites celebrities to join sustainability campaigns on behalf of clients with like-minded values while, at the same time, working extensively with fossil fuel entities. AdWeek reveals that many of the climate-focused creators who helped organize, write, and recruit signatories for the letter have worked with Edelman to connect with brands on sustainability campaigns. Only later did they learn that the PR firm also had close ties to the fossil fuel industry — and now they’re asking for change.
“Edelman’s fancy ads are giving ExxonMobil social license to operate, and to, thereby, destroy our climate,” Ayana Elizabeth Johnson, a marine biologist and co-founder of the All We Can Save Project, explains. “With this campaign, culture-makers are using their own social clout to say ‘not on my watch.'” All We Can Save rests in the heart of messaging about the climate crisis; it attempts to bring “head-heart integration, a focus on just solutions, and a ‘big tent’ to mainstream climate communication, thereby advancing a narrative shift.”
Signatories Use their Platforms to Express Outrage about PR Firm
The letter condemning Edelman moves beyond voluntary company rejection of fossil fuel companies and seeks out governmental intervention to restrict marketing campaigns of companies that subvert zero emissions goals.
“Advertising for fossil fuel companies obstructs urgently needed government action on climate change and impedes climate justice solutions. ‘Greenwashing” is too mild a term: Edelman is in fact actively contributing to fossil-fuel emissions through its marketing activities. Our planet is at a tipping point. There is no grey area here. Promoting ExxonMobil’s business model in 2021 means enabling untold human suffering and ecosystem destruction. Representing fossil-fuel clients makes Edelman’s corporate commitment to operating within the goals of the Paris Agreement fraudulent.”
The signatories to the letter — which are extensive and include youth activists Vanessa Nakate and Luisa Neubauer; authors Ta-Nehisi Coates and Naomi Klein; and public figures like Michael Cain, Philippe Cousteau, and Baratunde Thurston — implore other thought leaders, advocates, activists, creators, influencers, or social media managers to join in and use their platform to pressure every advertising and PR firm to drop fossil fuel clients.
“Our voices and our platforms have power,” the letter states, “and it is our responsibility to use it.”
The signatories are part of a larger movement of industry professionals and regulators who are inquiring into the insidious relationships among agencies, fossil fuel polluters, and other direct contributors to the climate crisis. Such collaborations aren’t new. Over the past 30 years, communications firms have become some of the fossil fuel industry’s most valuable allies, with contracts spanning years and amounting to billions of dollars in revenues. Since the 1990’s, the 5 major oil companies have spent over $3.6 billion on reputational advertising, much of it aimed at projecting an environmentally and socially responsible image.
An article in Climatic Change states that promotional campaigns in the service of a corporation’s position toward environmental issues such as climate change are prevalent in the oil and gas sectors. That’s because corporate image is seen as a valuable asset in managing risk, controlling negative media attention, and overcoming resistance by antagonistic civil society groups. Advertising expenditures by 5 major oil and gasoline companies for the time period 1986 to 2015 found that the factors that most influence corporate promotional spending are media coverage and congressional attention to the issue of climate change.
PR Firms, Edelman, & Complicity in the Climate Crisis
CleanCreatives has compiled a list of PR firms and advertising agencies and their clients in the fossil fuel industry, with a focus on 3 major regions: North America, Europe, and Australia. Fossil fuel industry clients include the full range of corporations involved in the business of extracting, transporting, refining, and selling fossil fuels, their trade associations, and front groups representing their interests. CleanCreatives documented these relationships through a number of sources, including industry publications, public disclosures by agencies or their contractors, and verified reporting.
“All PR firms — not just Edelman — should take note of the new campaign. Agencies with fossil fuel clients should take this as a serious sign that working with big polluters will damage their ability to build the kind of collaborative, purpose-driven campaigns that brands want. Rejecting fossil fuel clients would open the door for Edelman to work more closely with collaborators like the ones that signed this letter and, ultimately, better serve their clients.”
There may be some movement happening on the governmental level about constructing limits to fossil fuel misinformation campaigns. The House Committee on Oversight and Reform sent letters in September to the top executives at ExxonMobil Corporation, BP America Inc., Chevron Corporation, Shell Oil Company, American Petroleum Institute, and the US Chamber of Commerce, requesting documents on the reported role of the fossil fuel industry in a long-running, industry-wide campaign to spread disinformation about the role of fossil fuels in causing global warming.
“We are deeply concerned that the fossil fuel industry has reaped massive profits for decades while contributing to climate change that is devastating American communities, costing taxpayers billions of dollars, and ravaging the natural world,” the Chairs wrote. “We are also concerned that to protect those profits, the industry has reportedly led a coordinated effort to spread disinformation to mislead the public and prevent crucial action to address climate change.”
Photo by Carolyn Fortuna, CleanTechnica