Can PR giants quit their addiction to climate disinformation?
Former Edelman executive vice president Christine Arena discusses the PR industry’s reckoning with fossil fuel propaganda.
Emily Sanders is editorial lead for the Center for Climate Integrity. You can catch up with her on Twitter here.
Edelman, the largest PR firm on earth, has faced increased scrutiny for helping fossil fuel clients — including Exxon, Shell, the American Petroleum Institute, and others — mislead the public about climate change.
It’s a dangerous game that the company has played for years. As documented in investigative journalist Amy Westervelt’s podcasts, Drilled and Rigged, Edelman’s work for tobacco clients in the 1970s pioneered dangerously deceptive marketing practices — from creating fake grassroots groups that refute environmental and public health concerns to helping companies manufacture the illusion of scientific doubt. Its work for Exxon has even been cited in Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey’s lawsuit against the oil giant over its “tobacco industry-style campaign to sow doubt and confusion among the public.”
In 2015, Edelman announced that it would no longer “accept client assignments that aim to deny climate change.” But the PR giant’s current list of clients includes some of the same fossil fuel polluters and interest groups subpoenaed as part of an ongoing Congressional investigation into climate disinformation.
Now Edelman is the target of mounting activist pressure to drop its polluting clients, led by Clean Creatives, a group of communications professionals who want the industry to rethink what its work means for the climate.
On Friday, Edelman concluded a piece of its response to that pressure: a 60-day internal climate review of its client roster. Instead of dropping its “emissions intensive” clientele, the company is now promising to evaluate those relationships and “formalize clear criteria for climate communications.” As of yet, the company hasn’t provided any specifics.
I spoke with Christine Arena, a founding member of Clean Creatives and a former executive vice president at Edelman, who was one of several employees to leave the company in 2015 over its stance on climate change. Our conversation about Edelman’s latest statements, and the PR industry’s predicament as a whole, edited for length and clarity, is below.
EK: You have a great thread on Twitter explaining the difference between climate disinformation and greenwashing. How do you distinguish these practices from just exaggerating in order to sell a product?
CA: The key thing is that you're giving the audience a false indication of what's going on in reality, and that gap between what’s communicated and reality is actually potentially harmful. Fossil fuel products are some of the most dangerous products in the world. Nine million people die just from pollution each year. Climate change causes 150,000 or more deaths per year, according to the World Health Organization. Those products are more dangerous than tobacco and opioids combined, but fossil fuel marketers face none of the same restrictions that tobacco and opioid marketers do. They don't have to put a warning label on their products. They can do massive media buys so that you can't avoid their messages if you log on to Twitter or Facebook. And then a majority of the industry’s messaging that's environmentally focused contains, according to peer reviewed research, factual omissions, distortions, or greenwashing, creating a false impression of what the industry is really doing.
These ads minimize risks that consumers face, and play up efforts that are de minimis compared to where the majority of the industry's investments are really going. There's that famous IEA statistic that shows that less than 1% of the industry's investments are actually funneled to green or low carbon activities. A majority are invested in fossil fuel exploitation. When most of the industry's messaging sends an opposite message, that's an egregious gap.
And that is the argument, by the way, behind the state attorney general lawsuits that are all filed on the basis of false and deceptive advertising and messaging. These state AGs feel that they have enough evidence to suggest that this is fraudulent, potentially, and dangerous to people. I think that's really important for everyone to understand — that it's not just some activists that are saying this. There's really substance behind this argument and it's why there's a congressional investigation into this whole situation as well.
How does it work when a fossil fuel client hires a PR company? Who is coming up with the concepts and language to greenwash the industry’s operations?
I can tell you that generally, the client comes to an agency with a request for proposal, which will say, here are the challenges we face, here are the objectives, and here's what we want to do. So, say it’s Exxon and blue-green algae — they'll want to create impressions that are positive for Exxon and let the world know of their green investments. In the RFP, the client will often not willingly reveal what's really going on underneath the hood. The agency's job is to take that RFP and say, okay, well, let's create a campaign that shows that biofuels are the future — that ExxonMobil is all about biofuels. There is not a culture within agencies that encourages questioning the client.
But when we see Exxon spending more money promoting algae than actually investing in it, that's a factual omission, but it's a potentially egregious omission that gives the world a false impression, which allows Exxon to continue doing what it does without regulatory intervention or interference.
And that's really the game here. They’re trying to drive public opinion and maintain their social license to operate. Their job is to achieve the client's objective. But we've really reached the point where we have to look at this through a different lens. I feel for agencies because that hasn't been part of our culture. But at this point we need more self policing from within the industry itself. And currently the industry actually seems to be unwilling to do that.
Despite all of the activity now, none of the big CEOs have come forward to say, yes, we acknowledge this problem of greenwashing and climate disinformation, or yes, we believe we played a role in perpetuating that problem. We need leadership inside agencies to step forward, acknowledge it, and then implement strategies to contain it.
Speaking of which, what’s your take on Edelman’s 60-day review process and the statements they put out about its conclusion last week?
I am less concerned about whether or not Edelman develops criteria to decide which clients it works and doesn't work with. What I'm more concerned with is how they're servicing these clients. Richard Edelman is on record. He did a Financial Times interview, and he said, “we found zero examples of us erring on facts.” But that is of course a dismissive comment — the entire point of climate disinformation and greenwashing really is that no sentence is 100 percent false, but together it creates this misleading impression of a company or an industry and its climate efforts.
This is an opportunity for Edelman and for all agencies representing these clients to really look at this issue. I know that they've hired sustainability experts, but that's not the issue. We need people that are seasoned at evaluating environmental messaging, figuring out, you know, has this claim failed to disclose negative information? It might be truthful, but does it distract consumers from the organization's greater environmental impact as a whole? Is the overall marketing budget larger than the investment in the environmental initiative? Those sorts of questions.
As someone who worked on the inside, what can be done to put real pressure on Edelman and other PR firms to stop promoting the oil industry’s spin? What is most motivating to them?
I think a higher level, industry-wide conversation might be really motivating. Like folks, what do we stand for? What standards are we going to uphold? What does climate leadership mean? The industry is greenwashing itself, and becoming very comfortable using sustainability rhetoric and language, which they think connotes some sort of expertise. But again, looking at the data, looking at all of the campaigns, looking at all the peer reviewed research that shows that many of these environmental messages contain some sort of distorted perspective. Climate disinformation is considered such a problem that we have all of this legal activity and lawmaker intervention around it. What does it say about us that we haven't come together as an industry to acknowledge this crisis?
This sort of change needs to start at the top. I think already for so many employees, especially younger employees, climate is a paramount concern, but their management is old guard. I think just continuing to question leadership and ask good questions is the next step.
The action that agencies can take now is to include the fine print and proactively correct those factual omissions, distortions and greenwash before lawmakers force you to do so. There's a lot that agencies can do today to make headway on this issue. I think it's just a matter of them being motivated enough to do so.
ICYMI News Roundup