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PR Firms Take a Stand on Climate Change

RP Siegel | Thursday August 14th, 2014 | 2 Comments

Public relationsPublic relations (PR) is a powerful but unseen force in our society. Companies hire PR firms to make them look as good as possible. When the companies do something they are proud of, they do everything they can to make sure everyone hears about it (including, sometimes contacting reporters like us). When the companies do things that are not so great, they “spin” the news to make it sound harmless. PR firms make their money from fees paid by their clients and have typically been value-neutral, meaning that they promote whatever their clients want them to promote.

So it’s a pretty big deal when a number of the largest PR firms come out, in response to surveys administered by the Guardian and the Climate Investigations Centre, and collectively announce that they will no longer represent firms that want to spread messages denying the reality of man’s role in climate disruption. Among these firms are: WPP, Waggener Edstrom (WE) Worldwide, Weber Shandwick, Text100 and Finn Partners.

Weber Shandwick spokeswoman Michelle Selesky told the Guardian that, “We would not support a campaign that denies the existence and the threat posed by climate change, or efforts to obstruct regulations cutting greenhouse gas emissions and/or renewable energy standards.”

Likewise, Rhian Rotz, speaking for WE said, “We would not knowingly partner with a client who denies the existence of climate change.”

WPP, based in the U.K., is the world’s largest advertising firm by revenue. They commented that, “We ensure that our own work complies with local laws, marketing codes and our own code of business conduct. These prevent advertising that is intended to mislead and the denial of climate change would fall into this category,”

However, a spokesperson noted that individual entities within the organizations remain free to make their own client decisions, which could include “campaigns opposing regulations to cut greenhouse gas emissions.”

Notably absent from this group was the U.S.-based Edelman, the largest, independently-owned PR firm in the world. Edelman’s sizable client roster includes the American Petroleum Institute, a group that actively campaigns against climate regulations, as well as Shell and Chevron. The firm took the position that it evaluates clients on a case-by-case basis. Spokesman Michael Bush politely dodged the question, stating only that, “Expanding the dialogue in a constructive manner, and driving productive outcomes to solve energy challenges are the key criteria for evaluating client engagements.”

That was early in the week, before the Guardian ran their story. A few days later Edelman came back with a quickly reconsidered position — a classic example of damage control. A statement on their website read, “Edelman fully recognizes the reality of, and science behind, climate change, and believes it represents one of the most important global challenges facing society, business and government today. To be clear, we do not accept client assignments that aim to deny climate change.”

Of course, denying climate change and trying to block responsive action are two different things, but the statement is still a significant one. After all, if we could take denial off the table completely, responsive action would be far easier to achieve.

Richard Edelman, CEO, also wrote a blog post on the issue entitled “The Climate Change Imperative.” The article describes a dinner conversation he’d had with Jeffrey Sachs, director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University, about the need for dramatic action on climate change, in which he made the case for strong private-sector involvement. He closed by quoting Keith Weed, CMO for Unilever, who, when asked to see the business case for sustainability, said, “I would love to see the business case for the alternative.”

Image credit: Rick Oppenheim: Flickr Creative Commons

RP Siegel, PE, is an author, inventor and consultant. He has written for numerous publications ranging from Huffington Post to Mechanical Engineering. He and Roger Saillant co-wrote the successful eco-thriller Vapor Trails. RP, who is a regular contributor to Triple Pundit and Justmeans, sees it as his mission to help articulate and clarify the problems and challenges confronting our planet at this time, as well as the steadily emerging list of proposed solutions. His uniquely combined engineering and humanities background help to bring both global perspective and analytical detail to bear on the questions at hand.

Follow RP Siegel on Twitter.


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  • jenboynton

    Good stuff and a very important issue! I will say that the PR folks we work with (including the folks from the Business and Social Purpose practice at Edelman) increasingly do communications in both directions — i.e. out to the world about the firms they represent, and also back into the firms to help them improve their sustainability performance.

    PR people are smart – they know that if they’re out promoting a sustainability message that doesn’t stand up to close scrutiny, their clients will be accused of greenwashing. It doesn’t do their clients any good to have a strong sustainability message if there is no substance beneath the surface.

    We always have a ton of PR folks in our GRI sustainability reporter training courses, because the clients are asking their PR folks to help them figure out how to report, and all parties want to do it right – for practical and moral reasons.

    As for all the critiques about Edelman, like I said, the folks in their version of the sustainability practice genuinely want to help their companies be better. It’s a huge company with a ton of clients. Hopefully all this media pressure will help those at the top understand the value of their sustainability practice to the firm as a whole!

  • 9.8m/ss

    As long as Edelman still has the American Legislative Exchange Council on its client list, the statement that it won’t do work for climate science denial organizations is disingenuous at best.