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How PR Firms Captured the Sustainability Agenda

More than just “spin artists,” consultancies have promoted economic growth and environmental protection as mutually reinforcing.

By , a professor at Rutgers University’s School of Communication and Information.
Environmental activists rally for accountability for fossil fuel companies outside of the New York Supreme Court in New York City on Oct. 22, 2019.
Environmental activists rally for accountability for fossil fuel companies outside of the New York Supreme Court in New York City on Oct. 22, 2019.
Environmental activists rally for accountability for fossil fuel companies outside of the New York Supreme Court in New York City on Oct. 22, 2019. Drew Angerer/Getty Images

“There’s no such thing as bad publicity.” Maybe not for global public relations firm Edelman, after a letter signed by 450 climate scientists cycled through news headlines on Jan 19, calling on the public relations and marketing consultancy to drop its fossil fuel clients and discontinue all work that obstructs climate legislation. The letter, which called advertising and PR by fossil fuel companies “a major and needless challenge” to scientific research and government action on the climate crisis, came on the heels of Edelman’s forced portfolio review of clients, including ExxonMobil, Shell, and trade lobby group American Fuel & Petrochemical Manufacturers. This came after activists tied the PR firm to a campaign for ExxonMobil called Exxchange, making questionable claims about mitigating carbon emissions through a series of Facebook ads.

PR firms are valued for putting their clients’ interests in the spotlight, not for being in the spotlight themselves. But shining a spotlight is exactly what climate action advocates are aiming for, exposing the major part played by PR firms, ad agencies, and other advisory groups to hinder climate change progress. Edelman’s bad press is part of a growing number of protests, some by the consultancies’ own employees, to pressure these firms into admitting that neutrality is not an option when it comes to representing corporate polluters.

In another open letter sent on March 23, 2021, by staff to partners at McKinsey & Company, one of the world’s largest management consultancies, the authors write, “Our inaction on (or perhaps assistance with) climate emissions poses serious risk to our reputation, our client relationships, and our ability to ‘build a great firm that attracts, develops, excites, and retains exceptional people.’” According to the New York Times, McKinsey’s then-global managing partner, Kevin Sneader, and his successor, Bob Sternfels, responded to the letter in a memo on April 5, 2021, saying they “share your view that the climate issue is the defining issue for our planet and all generations.” On April 20, 2021—48 hours before Earth Day—the firm launched McKinsey Sustainability, promising to “invest in the creation of climate and energy transition thought leadership” and committing the firm to reaching “net zero climate impact by 2030.”

“There’s no such thing as bad publicity.” Maybe not for global public relations firm Edelman, after a letter signed by 450 climate scientists cycled through news headlines on Jan 19, calling on the public relations and marketing consultancy to drop its fossil fuel clients and discontinue all work that obstructs climate legislation. The letter, which called advertising and PR by fossil fuel companies “a major and needless challenge” to scientific research and government action on the climate crisis, came on the heels of Edelman’s forced portfolio review of clients, including ExxonMobil, Shell, and trade lobby group American Fuel & Petrochemical Manufacturers. This came after activists tied the PR firm to a campaign for ExxonMobil called Exxchange, making questionable claims about mitigating carbon emissions through a series of Facebook ads.

PR firms are valued for putting their clients’ interests in the spotlight, not for being in the spotlight themselves. But shining a spotlight is exactly what climate action advocates are aiming for, exposing the major part played by PR firms, ad agencies, and other advisory groups to hinder climate change progress. Edelman’s bad press is part of a growing number of protests, some by the consultancies’ own employees, to pressure these firms into admitting that neutrality is not an option when it comes to representing corporate polluters.

In another open letter sent on March 23, 2021, by staff to partners at McKinsey & Company, one of the world’s largest management consultancies, the authors write, “Our inaction on (or perhaps assistance with) climate emissions poses serious risk to our reputation, our client relationships, and our ability to ‘build a great firm that attracts, develops, excites, and retains exceptional people.’” According to the New York Times, McKinsey’s then-global managing partner, Kevin Sneader, and his successor, Bob Sternfels, responded to the letter in a memo on April 5, 2021, saying they “share your view that the climate issue is the defining issue for our planet and all generations.” On April 20, 2021—48 hours before Earth Day—the firm launched McKinsey Sustainability, promising to “invest in the creation of climate and energy transition thought leadership” and committing the firm to reaching “net zero climate impact by 2030.”

But why focus on consultancies rather than the polluters themselves? Just how responsible are PR firms and ad agencies when it comes to environmental problems? And how accountable should they be for efforts to create and perpetuate climate disinformation, weaken or prevent federal reform, and stifle scientific findings? As the U.S. House of Representatives’ Committee on Oversight and Reform expands its investigation into the fossil fuel industry’s role in preventing effective action on climate change, these questions are of much more than passing interest.

Part of the problem in assessing these consultants’ responsibility is the behind-the-scenes character of consultancies in general. A big PR campaign’s success is often predicated on its ability to make it seem as though its clients’ viewpoints just happened to enter into the public conversation. It’s an approach that lets the campaign’s architects appear to stand at arm’s length from its motives or effects.

A second, related issue is that when we do think of PR as a problem, we call it spin or misinformation. But this, too, lets PR firms off the hook because the fact is that PR, like other advisory services—such as advertising and lobbying—is not just about spinning clients’ prefabricated messages. Public relations counselors are much more active in shaping the strategies of their clients than most of us realize. In one example, leaked Edelman strategy documents for oil and gas company TransCanada (now TC Energy) to win support for a proposed pipeline in 2014 described the PR giant’s plans to recruit “security and sovereignty advocates,” suppliers and shippers, and local landowners to help get the pipeline approved while adding “layers of difficulty for our opponents, distracting them from their mission and causing them to redirect their resources.”

PR firms are neither benign messengers nor mere perception managers. The key to understanding PR’s power is to recognize just how deeply embedded their work is in systems of political representation and public communication.

For decades, PR strategists have worked in tandem with trade associations, government representatives, media companies, and others to promote the idea that their fossil fuel clients’ actions are in the public interest. Throughout the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, as battles intensified between environmental groups and business leaders over air and water pollution, workplace health and safety, and energy conservation, PR counselors developed alliances among industrial and labor groups as well as government agencies to overturn or prevent environmental restrictions. One strategy, initiated in the 1970s, involved creating single-issue coalitionsnetworks organized to combat a specific federal law or regulation that threatened the business-as-usual mantra of extractive and manufacturing industries. As former Environmental Protection Agency deputy administrator-turned-coalition chairman and industry lawyer John R. Quarles Jr. put it at the time, the goal was to “prune back the regulatory thicket” surrounding pollution control.

PR firms didn’t just spread the news about these coalitions—they created, managed, and promoted them. In the 1980s, PR giants like Hill+Knowlton Strategies, Burson-Marsteller (now Burson Cohn & Wolfe), APCO Associates (now APCO Worldwide), and boutique environmental PR firm E. Bruce Harrison drew in member companies and organizations from across industry sectors—petroleum, coal, pulp and paper, tobacco, and chemicals—with the promise of better representation in the media and in Washington. This gave PR counselors an excellent vantage point from which to control environmental problems.

First, it let them share their strategies across sectors. Tactics that worked for a tobacco company fighting the Clean Air Act, such as industry-friendly “sound science” reports to counter risk assessments, could be repurposed for a pesticide manufacturer dealing with legislation around toxic substances.

Second, their broad client roster was essential to harmonizing multiple voices to deliver a multistakeholder, pro-market, anti-regulatory message to the public and political decision-makers. This influence showed up in news coverage and congressional testimony that framed environmental problems as a trade-off between energy development for economic growth and a declining quality of life for hardworking Americans. As a front-page Wall Street Journal headline on March 28, 1990, put it, “Clean-Air Legislation Will Cost Americans $21.5 Billion a Year…Better Car or Less Hair Spray?”

One 1978 ad that ran in New Hampshire newspapers promoting the Seabrook Nuclear Power Station bore the headline, “If you want to continue to bathe, cook, keep warm and turn on lights…you need Seabrook!”

A third tactic to build political and public credibility is still standard practice in the PR arsenal: Flood the information landscape with “alternative facts” about environmental concerns. PR firms wrote newsletters, briefs, issue papers, press releases, and news source commentary; prepared and placed op-eds and advertorials; and sponsored events and conferences on energy and environment issues. Direct mailings on topics like adjusting air quality standards or the benefits of new technologies for energy production went to environmental officers of Fortune 500 companies, governors, and other state leaders, heads of legislative committees, pollution control officials, members of Congress, and business and labor groups. This helped PR professionals in firms both large and small build up their fossil fuel clients as experts on environmental issues while dismissing the efforts of environmental advocates as irrational and disorganized.

In the 1980s and 1990s, as evidence of global warming caused by burning fossil fuels moved from the scientific community into the mainstream, PR firms developed even more sophisticated strategies to downplay the emerging climate crisis. Amid growing concern about the United States’ solid waste crisis and toxic emissions, green PR campaigns for chemical manufacturers like Dow, Amoco, and Texaco promoted plastic products as alternatives to landfills or created environmental advisory councils and partnerships with environmental charities. PR firms also created major media campaigns for industry groups like the Global Climate Coalition so its members could downplay scientific evidence of global warming and influence policy debates over carbon taxes.

As activist groups continued to pressure polluting companies, PR firms also upped their game, helping clients to manage “activist assaults” by putting “a face on the issue” through third-party grassroots organizations (otherwise known as astroturf or front groups) that sponsor consumers, employees, or other ordinary citizens to voice client concerns. “Research suggests that business and industry are not always held in high esteem in the eyes of the public,” wrote Merrill Rose, then-executive vice president of Porter Novelli, in a 1991 article for Public Relations Quarterly. “Put your words in someone else’s mouth.”

By the time the United Nations’ Earth Summit got underway in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, U.S. and international PR firms had succeeded in capturing the sustainability agenda. At this global conference, attended by political leaders from 179 countries, consultants and their clients launched a Business Charter for Sustainable Development to rival proposals for more formal and binding agreements on climate action. The charter was signed by some of the largest companies—and worst polluters—in the world. It promoted voluntary, market-based approaches to environmental action, put forward economic growth and environmental protection as mutually reinforcing, and advanced the idea that business must play a central role in the global policy process. Its technical and management strategies were largely adopted by the international community as viable responses to the climate crisis.

It’s rare to say that an industry’s success comes from its ability to stay the same. But in the last 30 years, the PR industry has reused and recycled all of these tactics to try to keep climate action off the table. (And speaking of recycling, several studies have demonstrated the steep environmental costs of promoting recycling at the expense of compulsory regulations.) When PR firms representing oil companies advocate for job creation, economic opportunity, and land access, they are making use of a PR playbook devised decades ago.

Of course, with digital and social media comes expanded opportunities for innovation, with “invisible hand” fossil fuel promotion like online astroturf groups, Facebook community ads promoting energy jobs, or paid search results to influence conversations about net-zero or renewable energy initiatives.

But as last year’s U.N. Climate Change Conference (COP26) in Glasgow, Scotland, proved, the strategies have remained essentially unchanged: Tinker at the edges while leaving intact the national and global environmental burdens of fossil fuel development. Post-event analysis recounted how COP26 President Alok Sharma fought back tears after a last-minute watering down of the Glasgow Climate Pact’s language from a “phase-out” of coal power to a “phase down.” In his remarks at the closing plenary, Sharma called the global target of keeping global warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius within reach but with a weak pulse.

A well-worn playbook may be good news for regulators and others now turning their attention to fossil fuel companies’ deceptive practices regarding climate issues. Consultancies have increasingly found themselves caught in the crosshairs of procedural inquiries into climate inaction. A growing number of complaints are being filed with the Federal Trade Commission over misleading advertising campaigns. These are joined by state- and city-led lawsuits over “greenwashing” in the ad industry, when companies say products or policies are more environmentally friendly than they are. In Europe, activists are calling for a total ban on fossil fuel advertising, likening the impact of fossil fuel ads to the public harm caused by the tobacco campaigns of the last century.

Even as U.S. President Joe Biden’s Build Back Better framework and its billions of dollars in planned climate spending stalls in the Senate, House Democrats are finding workarounds, creating climate task forces, and pressing forward with hearings to get answers from boards of directors of major oil companies and their trade associations about their commitments to climate action. The House Committee on Oversight and Reform leading the investigation would be well advised to ask a few questions of their PR consultants.

Melissa Aronczyk is a professor at Rutgers University’s School of Communication and Information. She is the co-author of A Strategic Nature: Public Relations and the Politics of American Environmentalism.

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