The question of whether the PR sector (or the larger marketing, advertising and lobbying sectors) should work for fossil fuel companies has been raised on and off for several years, but has gained momentum in recent months. Some of this discussion has been raised by a group known as Clean Creatives, and a separate study authored by Robert Brulle of Brown University has also given legs to the topic.
Aric Caplan’s Jan. 31 commentary, raises some important issues that are worthy of discussion (and which I address below), but the irony cannot be lost that Caplan’s opinion piece accusing the PR sector of being part of a misinformation campaign itself includes misinformation. For instance…
- The author is incorrect in suggesting that Peabody Energy with Burson-Marsteller (now BCW) was responsible for “torpedoing” the Clean Power Plan. In fact, in 2016 the Supreme Court halted enforcement of the plan (and the Trump administration eventually repealed it), and this ruling had nothing to do with any PR campaign. Also, the Supreme Court indeed did rule on the merits, insofar as the question before the Court was whether the EPA under the Clean Air Act could enforce such a regulation.
- The author misrepresents the concept and origin of the term, “Clean Coal.” In fact, the origin of the term goes back to the 1970s, and the proper term was “Clean Coal Technology,” which was an initiative of the US Department of Energy under President Carter to explore ways to remove pollutants such as SOx and NOx from coal power plants. This term was not the product of any PR campaign to fight climate change policies.
- The author again attempts to mislead the reader by suggesting that “natural gas” is somehow associated with a campaign to promote fossil fuels. “Natural gas” is not a talking point, as the author suggests, but is a term to describe naturally occurring hydrocarbon gas, the discovery of which goes back more than a thousand years.
- The author also takes notice of a study published in late 2021, “The Role of Public Relations in Climate Change Politics,” of which Robert Brulle of Brown University is one of the authors. This study has been cited by many (including its authors) as proof that the PR sector is complicit in climate deception and blocking any climate change policy actions. However, the study itself concludes, “Yet despite extensive research into public opinion on climate change per se, we have identified no studies that measure the impact of such campaigns on public opinion.” In other words, the study’s authors acknowledge they have no data to support their claims to the media. A case of the kettle calling the pot black if ever there was one!
Let’s now turn to Caplan’s thesis… that energy companies should not be entitled to PR counsel and that PR firms should refuse to work with energy companies.
The most frightening aspect of this concept is the threat to the most sacred of our rights… the right to free speech.
Second, this attempts to quash any debate about the right path forward toward climate solutions.
Third, Caplan and other advocates of this idea would have you believe that the entire oil and gas sector is in the business of perpetuating “climate deception.” I don’t know of a single publicly traded oil and gas company (or even state-owned companies) which deny the existence of climate change, the causes or the need for action. Most companies have already set targets for greenhouse emissions reductions or even to get to net zero-emissions; most have launched various versions of energy transition strategies; and the entire sector is investing considerable capital in carbon reduction technology and renewables. But that doesn’t mean that opposing a particular regulation or legislative proposal is climate deception.
Fourth, it sets a dangerous precedent. Are PR firms soon to be pressured not to represent clients involved in other sectors because they happen to be controversial? And who is next in the crosshairs: law firms (already under siege), accounting firms? The companies that run the cafeterias for oil companies?
Caplan is proposing a flawed and dangerous path that will get us no closer to the solutions we need to address climate change. When working with integrity, responsibility, transparency and honesty, PR firms can make an important contribution to the climate change dialogue.
Chris Gidez is founding partner of G7 Reputation Advisory LLC. Prior to launching G7, he was executive VP/global energy practice leader at Hill+Knowlton Strategies, GM-corporate PR at Chevron and director of external affairs at Texaco.