The U.S. House Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations today held a hearing titled "The Role of Public Relations Firms in Preventing Action on Climate Change."
The oversight hearing, which focused on how PR firms work to improve the images of oil, gas and coal companies and trade groups and what effects that work has on our current climate-change debate, included testimony from witnesses such as Climate One founder/CEO Christine Arena and Melissa Aronczyk, a Rutgers University associate professor whose work specializes in corporate political advocacy and branding.
Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee Chair Katie Porter (D-Calif.) opened the session, claiming that oil and gas companies today are waging "information warfare" by hiring PR firms to support their position in the debate surrounding America's energy crisis, a practice she called "breathtaking in its shamelessness."
|Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee Chair Katie Porter (D-Calif.) speaks at today's Congressional hearing on PR agencies' role in preventing climate action.
Porter said that energy companies have moved from discounting climate change to convincing Americans that big oil is part of the solution, effectively turning the climate crisis "into crass marketing opportunities."
"PR firms play a critical role in this effort," she said.
Climate One founder Arena, a former Edelman executive with two decades of experience in the PR world, stated that "the link between misleading communications and climate policy obstruction is well-documented," and claimed that disinformation surrounding the subject of climate action has become more detailed and more nuanced in recent years.
Likening PR's work for energy companies to the tactics used by big tobacco in the past, Arena detailed some of the recent strategies and techniques used by the PR industry "to mislead the public," and said that until now, the PR firms responsible for this work "have escaped scrutiny" and have "flatly denied responsibility."
"Like the tobacco industry, the fossil fuel industry has always relied on public relations to advocate for its interest, but what's new is the intensity of its pursuits," Arena said.
Speaking on the role of PR firms in preventing action on climate change, media studies scholar Aronczyk said a central finding of her research is that "the public relations industry has, for several decades, been a major actor in the strategic planning and execution of campaigns for the fossil fuel industry to influence what we know and how we act on environmental issues."
The work PR companies perform for the fossil fuel industry is about more than mere messaging or marketing, Aronczyk said. While PR firms often say they're simply facilitating or amplifying their clients' messaging, in actuality, they're actively coming up with new ideas and information and targeting multiple stakeholders "to distort our understanding of climate change" while actively downplaying their role in this process.
The lone dissenting witness was Amy O. Cooke, CEO of Raleigh-based free-market think tank the John Locke Foundation and an expert in energy policy. Cooke said she studied journalism in college due to her love for the First Amendment, but her fear of losing it is what ultimately drove her to public policy.
Cooke said factors like efficiency, cost and land use also need to be added to the energy conversation and said she trusts Americans to put good policy ahead of partisan ideology. Americans deserve access to the facts so they can decide for themselves, she said, and public policy groups like hers provide information so the public and lawmakers can make sound, informed public-policy decisions.
"I don't think anytime you hear another voice, even if you disagree with it, it's disinformation," Cooke said. "It's public debate. It's not disinformation just because you disagree with it. It's another perspective that needs to be heard. That's how we come up with solutions."
Pushback on the witnesses from the subcommittee's conservative flank was considerable.
"It must be election season," said Rep. Blake Moore (R-Utah). Moore called it a "disservice to the American people" that committee hearings are now focused on going after energy companies and "public relations professionals doing their job" to score political points. Moore pointed to the hypocrisy of environmental groups that add "spin" to their side of the debate while suggesting energy companies aren't allowed to tell their side of the story on the energy issue, saying "you cannot have it both ways."
Rep. Jody Hice (R-Ga.) concurred, claiming that it's "incredibly hypocritical" and "totally bogus" that "one side has free speech" on the issue of climate change, "but the other does not." Hice also detailed what he characterized as some of the "dark money" and "foreign money" that often funds environmental groups in the U.S. today.
Rep. Garret Graves (R-La.) discussed how the Biden Administration's "inefficient" and "misleading" energy policies are causing the American public to spend more money in energy costs while emissions have gone up at the same time.
Rep. Matt Rosendale (R-Mont.) said environmental groups are often engaged in an attempt to silence the voice on one side of the climate-change debate, while simultaneously suppressing the technology created by energy companies that have given us the ability to utilize our resources in more environmentally sound ways.
Rep. Lauren Boebert (R-Colo.) said that "socialist" environmental groups like Colorado Rising "harass private companies" and threaten hundreds of thousands of jobs that are vital to her state's economy. Boebert noted that if such an "anti-energy agenda" was passed into law, the residents of Colorado would be "rubbing their hands together to stay warm during the winter months."
A September study from London-based think tank Influence Map, which examined how oil and gas companies use marketing to improve their public image, found that while more than 60 percent of energy companies' advertisements contain green messaging of some kind, only about 12 percent of industry expenditures end up allocated toward climate solutions.
Researchers at Brown University similarly found in a study last year that most advertising for oil and gas companies contains misleading information or factual distortions and cited PR and marketing as one of the greatest barriers to climate action.
Porter in August threatened the possibility of a subpoena against consulting firm FTI Consulting for failing to respond to the Natural Resources Committee's previous request to produce documents relating to its communications work for fossil fuel companies.