A recent survey of global PR firms found a portion of them willing to publicly state that they wouldn’t work with climate change deniers. Top 25 international PR firms including WPP, Waggener Edstrom (WE) Worldwide, Weber Shandwick, Text100, and Finn Partners, told the Guardian they don’t want clients who deny human-caused climate change or campaigns blocking carbon pollution regulations. Navigating public opinion on climate change is one of the biggest challenges to the multibillion dollar industry, as the science can be hard to interpret and misconstrued to push alternative agendas and companies can be fickle and insincere about their true motivations.
Ten of the 25 firms responded to multiple inquiries from the Guardian and the Climate Investigations Center, a D.C.-based group researching climate disinformation efforts. Seven of the firms said their companies saw climate change as a threat, but fewer would rule out taking on clients that deny climate change or that want to block climate-friendly policies.
Kert Davies, the founder of Climate Investigations, told ThinkProgress that what the Guardian report didn’t include is that a lot of these companies have internal carbon accounting. Even the world’s largest independently owned PR firm, Edelman, with clients like the American Petroleum Institute (API) and the Koch-funded American Legislative Executive Council (ALEC), has an internal carbon policy. Davies said this type of GHG emissions awareness can develop for a number of reasons, not just the notion of being environmentally friendly. For instance one company started keeping track of emissions because they took on IBM as a client and IBM requires contractors to track carbon and report it to them as part of their upstream accounting.
“What is interesting about this study is that a lot of firms in the PR industry treat themselves like law firms,” said Davies. “They consider themselves above the fray and they sort of absolve themselves from having a role in perpetuating the dialogue. But they do try and exert an influence, so its not fair for them to say or behave as if they are agnostic. They like to pretend they’re just the megaphone, not the voice.”
Davies said that while some firms responded with wishy-washy answers, nuanced replies that left something to be desired, or overly enthusiastic PR-speak, the study is important because it puts the companies on the record and can help reveal any duplicitous activity. He said he’s seen this type of accountability on climate done for a number of other industries, such as the financial sector and business groups, but never for the PR world.
David Fenton, CEO and founder of Fenton Communications, a 32-year-old social change communications agency, told ThinkProgress he’s glad to see the PR industry taking a position. “I’m a little bit skeptical regarding what they are going to define as a campaign on climate, but it’s great that they are making declarations. They need to decide which side of history they are on here.”
While the general public may view PR firms more as mouthpieces than moral compasses, leaders of several large, especially environmentally aware PR firms told ThinkProgress that the decisions they make are about much more than turning down clients.
“35 to 40 percent of the American public still doesn’t believe in human-caused climate change,” said Fenton. “That’s not true anywhere else in the world. In a sense I think climate change is the greatest PR challenge in human history. People who know how to advance the conversation, should.”
Fenton said that in the last decade foundations and NGOs working in the climate and environmental arena have finally started to put some more resources into communicating the issues, but that the percentage is still too small. “I think foundations are still primarily funding the policy supply side — studies, reports — it would be nice if they would put more into the policy demand side,” he said.
The shift in foundational emphasis on communication is being supplemented by the re-calibrated focus on energy and environmental issues within private businesses as well. Fenton said there’s a “sea change” going on within many of the companies that PR firms work for and that many are already pricing carbon internally. He mentioned General Mills’ recent decision to request suppliers reduce GHG emissions as an example.
With environmental groups and scientists trying to go from simply presenting the science to conveying it in the most digestible way to the public, PR firms have gained more influence in shaping the debate around climate policies.
“I think that public relations people are right at the elbow of powerful people in industry and government,” James Hoggan, who ran his own public relations firm in Vancouver and founded DeSmogBlog, told the Guardian. “You are an insider — a very trusted insider — and you can have a huge influence. It really does matter.”
Aric Caplan, President of Caplan Communications, a PR firm serving the public interest, told ThinkProgress that he thinks PR firms “have to take a stand” and that it’s not OK to look at the “mighty dollar of fossil fuels and other deep-pocketed interests and think of them as nothing but a revenue stream.”
Caplan said companies need to make these decisions early on in the process of determining what sort of company they are and not just engage in after-the-fact greenwashing.
“The mission has to be what’s sustainable in the future,” he said. “It can’t just be lipstick on the pig.”