Executives in our industry want to change the world. Their level of ambition isn't eclipsed by recent college graduates or other professionals reinventing themselves and returning to the workforce. Frankly, I love my work “fighting the good fight,” countering threats in the public interest. For example, in April 2017, John O’Grady, AFGE National Council president of EPA Locals #238, called declaring the EPA union was at an existential crossroads.
Nearly 9,000 union members, all federal workers, had “a target on their backs,” O’Grady said. White House adviser Stephen Bannon vowed to “the deconstruction of the administrative state.” During the ensuing 22 months, we fought to save the EPA by engaging national and local journalists and broadcasters and leveraging essential PR tactics with a measure of good luck.
EPA administrator Scott Pruitt, and later Andrew Wheeler, ignored the public interest and played favorites regularly with political elites and energy industry cronies. From the outset, political appointees intimidated, surveilled, and “encouraged” retirements upon thousands who were apolitical and known to serve customarily in nonpartisan roles. EPA bosses derided their own employees as “nameless, faceless bureaucrats” and drove untold numbers of career professionals to quit.
We quickly messaged union leaders and prepared them to speak as private citizens who were expert scientists, engineers and lawyers. In 2017, saving the EPA addressed vulnerabilities after Hurricane Harvey triggered Texas chemical plants to leak and superfund sites to leech pollutants, requiring major EPA cleanups. Months earlier, government memos threatened to close laboratories in Houston’s EPA Region 6 and San Francisco’s Region 9, citing “budgetary reasons.”
Pruitt and Wheeler reflexively alleged federal overreach by former EPA chiefs. Faithful to their free-market orthodoxy of blaming “burdensome regulations,” but antithetical to the established purpose of EPA, it was unclear exactly what avowed conservatives were conserving. Irresponsibly, they asserted a self-regulating type of “honor system” that profoundly jeopardized public health. Instead of applying rigorous science in policymaking, the proverbial fox guarded the henhouse all four years. Soon, the EPA acted ostensibly as a “Business Environment” Protection Agency.
Unyielding, we portrayed authentic labor voices and the work of dedicated civil servants in news media to counteract widespread acrimony from EPA management. Frequent TV and radio news coverage, reporter briefings, public events, advertising, digital and social media strengthened their storytelling to save the EPA. Timely op-eds, for instance, identified the three women who stood up to protect the American people and lost their jobs. After the EPA union joined the effort to “Boot Pruitt,” one of the most scandal-plagued Cabinet officials ever, he resigned.
Trump pressed on, advocating the L.E.A.N. management philosophy where Less Employees Are Needed. Several months before the longest government shutdown in U.S. history, 35 days, he tried union-busting. Despite that, our job was to cast a bright light on the integrity of the embattled union membership, whose morale working at EPA was sinking. On the surface, they seemed unflappable. Some brave federal employees among the 380,000 furloughed spoke out to mainstream media audiences, nationally and in local media about their plight, while 420,000 others worked without pay. Ultimately, the union prevailed.
According to a major study into the role of PR firms in climate change politics, Brown University recently found many successful and renowned firms in the coal/steel/rail, gas, oil and utilities sectors continue to deny science and advance agendas for the fossil fuels industry. I say it’s time for PR to cut ties with fossil fuel clients.
Aric Caplan is president of Caplan Communications, an agency he founded in 2004 to champion the conservation, environmental and renewable energy sectors.