The F-List: How PR Firms Design Erroneous Environmental Images

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Would you want to be on the F-list?

The F-list is made up of fossil fuel companies that are working very, very hard to downplay their impact on the climate crisis. The F-list companies are not the only ones getting heat, either, as press relations, advertising, and other image management firms are finding themselves the object of US House of Representatives scrutiny.

The issue is blatant climate disinformation.

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Two House Democrats are in the process of scrutinizing creative agencies whose raison de terre is to massage the public environmental image of the F-list’s role.

House Natural Resources Committee Chair Raúl Grijalva (AZ) and Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations Chair Katie Porter (CA) have issued letters to 5 firms. In the letters, which were shared exclusively with the Washington Post’s Climate 202, the lawmakers have requested all documents and communications concerning the creative agencies’ content and compensation work for the F-list from January, 2013 to present.

“If we’re going to take meaningful action against climate change,” Grijalva outlined, “we need to be armed with facts and science, not industry propaganda. The American people deserve to know the truth, and we intend to do our job to find it.”

After June 27, any of the firms that fails to provide the required information may feel the power of a Congressional subpoena.

How are the F-list companies reacting to accusations about climate disinformation?

It seems the American Petroleum Institute (AFI) — one of the F-list big hitters — is more concerned about producing more oil than limiting further environmental degradation. Refocusing the issue on “record inflation and rising energy costs,” AFI argues that the US should be looking at solutions to “unlock more American energy to keep the lights on and meet demand while reducing US emissions.” Read: drill, baby, drill, and reap the profits.

The Truth Will Tell: F-List Doubletalk

A former ExxonMobil lobbyist and senior director of federal relations, Keith McCoy was caught last year accidentally telling the truth about ExxonMobil subterfuge to sabotage President Biden’s climate agenda.

The revelation emerged in a secretly recorded video in which McCoy revealed the down-and-dirt-truth in what he thought was an interview with a potential client.

McCoy admitted that ExxonMobil works behind the scenes to stall action on climate change even as it claims publicly to support the Paris Agreement and policies like a carbon tax. Through entities like shadow groups and centrist think tanks, one of the most powerful companies on the F-list fights congressional climate action. McCoy said that the company backs a carbon tax, for example, because it believes it will never happen but offers a good talking point.

This sole example is but a drop in the proverbial F-list disinformation bucket. Clean Creatives, which challenges firms that continue to work for fossil fuel companies, says that collaborations between the F-list and creative agencies are extensive but are also experiencing more stress than ever before.

That’s because capital has begun to flow into essential climate solutions, inviting scrutiny about the F-list and their creative teams. Regulators and governments are now stepping up to examine “the polluted relationships between fossil fuel companies and the agencies they hire to spin their dirty stories.”

How PR Firms Recreate their F-List Clients’ Stories

So, how do the creative agencies make their F-list clients look so good? Let’s check out some examples of how companies massage the message to meet the demands of investor relations, public education, issues analysis, regulatory challenges, and environmental pressures.

Blue Advertising: Client = American Petroleum Institute

“Buffeted by a challenging public opinion environment, the US oil and natural gas industry hired Blue to create an education campaign unprecedented in the industry’s history. This campaign, recipient of Telly, Communicator, SABRE, and MarCom Awards, focused on showcasing both the benefits oil and natural gas bring to all facets of American life as well as the industry’s innovation and technological prowess. The American Petroleum Institute tasked Blue with creating a campaign designed to raise the visibility of key energy issues during the election season. Blue’s multi-media ‘Vote 4 Energy’ campaign features real voters, who articulate their real-world energy priorities and proudly label themselves ‘energy voters.’”

DDC Public Affairs: Client = DTE Energy

“DTE Energy wanted to bolster its PAC’s reputation among elected officials and, in the process, better align the business objectives of the PAC with the values of DTE employees. DTE turned to DDC to help them build a stronger relationship between eligibles and the PAC and better connect the dots between PAC participation and policy outcomes. DDC focused on increasing engagement by opening new lines of communication and new channels for participation, and making PAC messaging more straightforward and accessible. As part of these strategies, we introduced a new PAC ambassador: Nora, an animated PAC Lab based on DTE’s real-life beloved service dog and office mascot. Nora allowed the PAC to deliver messages and information in fun and creative ways and has expanded the PAC’s appeal to a wider group of eligible employees, particularly those with limited understanding of PACs. DTE PAC attracted new visibility and new participants without making a hard solicitation ask, and saw increased participation even during the height of the pandemic and other challenging events of 2020.”

FTI Consulting: Client = Oil and Gas Industry

“Today, few global business sectors have more opportunities and challenges than the Energy, Power & Products segment. Market participants are struggling to meet the demand for clean technology in Europe, satisfy the insatiable appetite for coal in the Far East, or capitalize on the shale oil and gas revolution in the United States while, at the same time, coping with challenges such as increasing government regulation and more stringent environmental pressure. FTI Consulting provides a wide array of advisory services that address the strategic, financial, reputational, regulatory and legal needs of energy and utility clients involved in the production of crude oil, natural gas, refined products, chemicals, coal, electric power, emerging technologies and renewable energy. In addition, we furnish strategic communications services across all disciplines, from capital markets to investor relations.”

Story Partners: Client = Noble Energy

“When a proposed ballot measure threatened Noble Energy’s oil and natural gas operations in northern Colorado, the company knew it needed to act quickly to protect its largest onshore asset, not to mention the local economy and thousands of jobs. Our baseline research showed higher than expected negatives based more on emotion than facts, and a huge gap in public awareness of Noble Energy’s responsible environmental practices, commitment to local communities and contribution to Colorado’s economy. By reframing the controversy from a fight between industry, government and citizens to an opportunity to promote energy independence and innovation, we successfully built public understanding and trust; kept a harmful initiative off the ballot; and built an ongoing social media presence to continue to strengthen Noble Energy’s reputation as a responsible corporate citizen among the public and other key stakeholders.”

Singer Associates: Client = Chevron

“Singer Associates developed advertisements to showcase why residents are Richmond Proud and to build support for a newer, safer and cleaner refinery. The ads aired on television and generated community pride in Richmond, where Chevron has operated a refinery for over 100 years.”

“For decades, fossil fuel companies and associations have engaged in public relations campaigns to downplay the threat of climate change and the central role fossil fuels have played in causing it,” the lawmakers who sent the letters to the F-list acknowledge. “These influence campaigns were intended to prevent the country from taking critical steps to address the climate crisis.”

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Carolyn Fortuna

Carolyn Fortuna, PhD, is a writer, researcher, and educator with a lifelong dedication to ecojustice. Carolyn has won awards from the Anti-Defamation League, The International Literacy Association, and The Leavey Foundation. Carolyn is a small-time investor in Tesla and an owner of a 2022 Tesla Model Y as well as a 2017 Chevy Bolt. Please follow Carolyn on Substack:

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