For decades, too many in the public relations industry have conspired with fossil fuel companies to spread misinformation about climate change. Their actions help imperil the planet and poison the national discourse about the existential threat of our time: global warming.
In case you haven’t seen “Don’t Look Up,” don’t delay! Truth is always stranger than fiction as hundreds of scientists in January called on PR and ad firms to cut ties with their fossil fuel clients. They warned deceptive campaigns “represent one of the biggest barriers to the government action science shows is necessary to mitigate the ongoing climate emergency.”
Consider BP’s high-profile “Beyond Petroleum” re-branding campaign that Ogilvy & Mather designed for British Petroleum. The slogan and its corresponding ads with ecologically-minded ethos (“It’s time to think outside the barrel,” one ad suggests) redefined the fossil fuel giant as “environmentally friendly,” along with a newly designed flowery green and yellow sunburst logo. In 2010, BP was responsible for the largest oil spill in U.S. history, the Deepwater Horizon blowout. That disaster dumped more than 130 million gallons of oil into pristine waters in the Gulf of Mexico, affecting 70,000 square miles, killing eleven rig workers and destroying thousands of marine mammals and sea turtles. That’s only one of the egregious incidents in the company’s sordid 100-year history of appalling accidents, spills and exploitation.
PR has been so successful in helping the fossil fuel industry greenwash its image that the industry’s marketing campaigns often seep into common vernacular. Burson Cohn & Wolfe developed the “clean coal” campaign for Peabody Energy in 2014 to help torpedo President Barack Obama’s Clean Power Plan, the first-ever initiative to regulate carbon emissions from the nation’s power sector (it never went into effect). Scholars note that could be the first time the Supreme Court ever stayed a rule before any court ruled on the merits. Today, “clean coal” remains a popular talking point, even though there’s no such thing. So is “natural gas,” an industry term commonly used when referring to fracked gas to clean up its image (regarding the molecular structures of natural gas, 70 to 90 percent of it consists primarily of methane, a greenhouse gas that is 80 times more potent at warming the atmosphere than carbon dioxide.).
It seems there’s no end in sight to greenwashing, or to the blind eye that some PR firms take in their complicity. Following COP26, the Chicago Tribune reported Edelman, one of the largest PR firms, rejected criticism that their communications practice enables climate change denial and rejects science, even though the firm represents ExxonMobil, one of the most valuable fossil fuel energy companies in history.
Brown University recently issued a peer-reviewed investigation, “The Role of Public Relations Firms in Climate Change Politics” published in Climatic Change. It reveals the PR industry’s profound influence, confirming what many already know: various PR firms are complicit in helping the fossil fuel industry to communicate. The most prominent segment to wield PR firms in advancing their agenda are the coal/steel/rail, gas & oil and utilities sectors.
Researchers at Brown discovered that PR influences climate policy in work that requires them to “remain invisible.” They also conclude that agencies haven’t been “held to account for their activities.” Big polluters, the study found, used PR to affect perceptions about climate science at the national level. They include Burson Cohn & Wolfe, Charles Ryan, Weber Shandwick, Cerrell, Hill+Knowlton and DF King, in addition to the more mainstream names like Ogilvy, which have represented hundreds of oil and gas disinformation campaigns between 1988 and 2020.
“Everybody knows about the Heartland Institute and the Competitive Enterprise Institute and the Koch brothers,” wrote Robert Brulle, a visiting professor and report’s co-author at Brown. “That’s not really news anymore. But the other 95 percent of these companies’ efforts to greenwash their reputations and shift public opinion are being ignored.” Ironically, the children of long-time oil company employees are now confronting the climate crisis with their parents.
We live at a time when the climate crisis threatens the future of our planet, and the future of the children and grandchildren we bequeath to it. It’s time for PR companies traditionally supporting the fossil fuel industry, which is squarely responsible for this crisis, to get real. It’s time for PR to commit to no longer accept any contracts with fossil fuel companies looking to greenwash their image and to declare they will divest from them for good.
Some of the largest and most successful PR firms have defied science and contrived multibillion-dollar propaganda operations that enable and advance fossil fuels whose business models literally destroy our planet. Their fictions have delayed climate action, frustrated the public, politicized the climate crisis and paused practical solutions.
How much longer can our industry remain silent about its complicity when the writing is on the wall? “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter,” the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. said.
It’s time to break the silence. It’s time for the PR industry to think outside the barrel.
Aric Caplan is President of Caplan Communications, an agency that represents the conservation, environmental and renewable energy sectors.