The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

More than 450 scientists call on PR and ad firms to cut their ties with fossil fuel clients

Scientists and activists are taking aim at Edelman, a public relations giant, and other outfits earning money from companies that fuel climate change

Environmental activists rally for accountability for fossil fuel companies outside the New York Supreme Court in 2019. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
10 min

The public relations giant Edelman vaulted to the top of its profession with clever campaigns that burnished the images of leading corporations. Now, under fire for its work on behalf of fossil fuel companies, Edelman is scrambling to bolster its own reputation.

On Wednesday, more than 450 scientists called on public relations and advertising firms, including the prestigious Edelman, to stop working for oil and gas companies. The firms’ ad campaigns for these companies, the scientists said, “represent one of the biggest barriers to the government action science shows is necessary to mitigate the ongoing climate emergency.” A group of 100 activists and former Edelman employees partnered with Clean Creatives, a campaign pressuring PR and ad agencies to quit fossil fuels, to issue the same demand.

The question for the PR and ad business is whether this emboldened coalition of academics and advocates can turn fossil fuel companies into social pariahs — a sort of New Tobacco.

“PR and ad firms are part of a web of influence, including law firms, lobbying organizations and think tanks,” said Christine Arena, who worked briefly for Edelman and later founded a small business called Generous Films. “They are all charged with maintaining the fossil fuel industry’s ability to operate.”

Edelman is following its own PR strategy. Earlier this month, it concluded a two-month study of its climate principles and scrutinized more than 330 of its 2,000 clients, including conducting “a deep dive” on 20 whose emissions are particularly large. That group includes ExxonMobil, Royal Dutch Shell, and American Fuel and Petrochemical Manufacturers (AFPM), according to the Clean Creatives activist campaign. So far, however, Edelman has not severed ties with any clients.

“I think we’re simply recognizing that this is the most important issue of the day and that clients, most clients, are going to want to do this,” Richard Edelman, the firm’s president and chief executive, said in an interview with The Washington Post.

Major financial institutions are trying to walk a similarly fine line. Last year, the asset and risk management firm BlackRock threw its considerable weight behind the election of three dissident directors at ExxonMobil, which on Tuesday said its own operations would reach net zero by 2050. In December, however, BlackRock was part of a multibillion-dollar deal to buy pipelines from Saudi Aramco. On Tuesday, BlackRock chief executive Larry Fink said his firm, which has $10 trillion under management, would not become the “climate police” or divest itself of fossil fuel firms.

“I do believe that extractive industry is going the way of tobacco, and for that same reason any [ad] agency who either claims ‘purpose’ or dabbles in sustainability will have to stop working with them,” said Henk Campher, who joined Edelman in 2009 to advise companies on developing corporate responsibility strategies and left in 2015 over what he said was Edelman’s lucrative work for the American Petroleum Institute. “Like CVS did — you can’t sell tobacco and medicine at the same time,” he said.

Activists have spent years lobbying universities, banks and religious institutions to divest from fossil fuels, a drive that is reminiscent of the anti-apartheid divestment efforts of the 1980s.

“The campaign targeting Edelman is one of many more to come, especially if ad agencies continue to ignore their crucial role in exacerbating the climate crisis,” Grecia Nuñez, a law student at American University and a member of Law Students for Climate Accountability, said in an email.

Nuñez’s group also is targeting several law firms, including Gibson Dunn & Crutcher, which has represented Chevron in a costly fight over oil waste left behind in Ecuador and over the Dakota Access pipeline in Montana. “Service providers such as ad agencies and law firms cannot claim neutrality when their business is to perpetuate climate change,” Nuñez said. Gibson Dunn declined to comment.

Pressure on Edelman is also coming from Clean Creatives — which collected more than 100 signatures in November, including those of comedian Amy Poehler, author Ta-Nehisi Coates and prominent climate diplomat Christiana Figueres. They demanded that Edelman drop ExxonMobil and other fossil fuel companies and petroleum trade groups as clients.

“‘Greenwashing’ is too mild a term. Edelman is in fact actively contributing to fossil-fuel emissions through its marketing activities,” the group said. It said that Richard Edelman, the chief executive, was “doing significant reputational damage to his agency’s brand as a leader in trust.”

Edelman is one of the most powerful public relations and advertising firms in the world, and its work with the fossil fuel industry has been under scrutiny for years.

Founded by Richard Edelman’s father, Daniel Edelman, in a corner of the Chicago Merchandise Mart, the firm later held space in the same building as Standard Oil Co. of Indiana.

“The white marble floors, the exclusive dining club at the top of the building, the stunning view of Lake Michigan were all part of the allure,” Richard Edelman wrote later. “It was a recognition that Edelman had made it to the big leagues; that we were worthy of representing any multinational.”

And it did.

From 2008 through at least 2011, the firm was paid an average of $68.9 million a year by the American Petroleum Institute for advertising that displayed ordinary people — “I’m Kelsie” or “I’m Roy” — beside a pitch for “developing our plentiful domestic energy resources.” Some analysts estimate that Edelman earned at least an additional $100 million from the trade group.

The firm sought other clients, too. At a May 2015 conference at National Harbor near D.C., an Edelman executive displayed slides about “The Rise of Activism; Oil & Gas PR and New Media Conference.”

The slides warned of “activism on the rise worldwide.” They said that half of the most-targeted companies were in the energy business, and they offered people an “anatomy of an activist” and the “activist playbook” — with an eye toward thwarting the companies’ opponents, according to one person who attended.

“I feel wholly comfortable with what we did,” Richard Edelman told The Post, recalling the firm’s work for the oil and gas industry. “Remember, it was 2014. Fracking and all this was quite new. We made the case of that being a positive for America.” He said the firm talked about “America recovering its industrial might through affordable energy” and “the technology story.” And many international industrial firms sited their plants near U.S. natural gas supplies.

But Edelman’s promotion of API linked the firm to global warming.

“What so often seems to happen is that PR people like to think of themselves as just facilitating the message,” said Melissa Aronczyk, an associate professor in Rutgers University’s school of communication and information and the co-author of “A Strategic Nature: Public Relations and the Politics of American Environmentalism.”

“I don’t think, historically, PR people saw themselves as being responsible for values the clients they were working with were promising,” Aronczyk added. “It is only when they themselves are dragged into the limelight that they have to respond.”

Sometimes, Edelman has basked in that limelight. In 2019, it won an award for its “We Make Progress” ads for AFPM. “We make the propylene that makes the heart valves, that have helped 3 million people celebrate another year,” one of the ads said.

A former Edelman executive who left on good terms said that ad agencies and public relations firms sometimes fail to confront the very issues on which they advise clients.

“The conundrum comes when you want to position yourself as a crusader, as a good guy, as a climate champion,” said the executive, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to preserve his business relationships. “And then you do things that undercut that. You can say, ‘I just represent the positive parts.’ But it’s difficult to do that if you are also trying to position yourself as a crusader for good.”

Edelman is not the first company to become entangled in a broad shift in political and moral views, and it has adapted before. Edelman stopped representing tobacco companies in 1997. In 2012, it restated an earlier commitment to reject work involving firearms use. In 2015, Edelman said it would no longer represent coal companies or other companies that denied that climate change was real or that human activity was contributing to it.

While oil, gas and coal companies have come under attack for helping to warm the planet, industry executives note that there is a difference between petroleum products and the nonessential indulgence of cigarettes. Most Americans need gasoline to get to work and use a mixture of natural gas, coal and renewables to power their appliances and lights — at least until electric alternatives powered by renewables are more available.

Robert Casamento, the new global head of climate at Edelman, said people “have to acknowledge and do acknowledge, as we do, that over the next 30 years fossil fuels have to be used on a declining basis.”

Other firms that do work for fossil fuel companies are resisting pressures, too. At the McKinsey & Co. consulting firm, more than 1,100 employees signed a letter urging the disclosure of carbon emissions that the firm’s clients were pouring into the atmosphere. McKinsey, however, said that it wanted to advise firms on how to reach net-zero emissions by 2050.

“Like it or not, there is no way to deliver emissions reductions without working with these industries to rapidly transition,” Bob Sternfels, global managing partner of McKinsey, said in a response posted on the firm’s website.

Casamento said that some clients would fail basic climate tests. Edelman found instances where clients have no public position on the Paris agreement, no emissions data readily available, no net-zero emissions goals, poor communications and “gaps in staff understanding of climate issues.”

But it remained unclear whether the Edelman firm had dropped any clients. While Richard Edelman said “we will only work with those clients who agree with our principles,” he also said “I cannot disclose our client relationships.”

Michael E. Mann, a professor of atmospheric science at Pennsylvania State University, said Edelman’s response has been weak.

“Edelman has certainly moved away from promoting climate change denial campaigns, but that’s not what fossil fuel companies are doing now anyway,” he said in an email. “Instead, they’ve engaged in a broad array of tactics that stop short of denial but promote delay [and] supposed ‘solutions’ that kick the can down the road.”

Mann said it was simply “an excuse for continuing to extract and pollute today.”

The scientists’ letter leaves room for PR firms to work with fossil fuel companies that are reducing production, but Mann said that Edelman is not doing that.

“That’s the ‘new climate war,’” Mann said, “and I see nothing in Edelman’s latest disclosures to convince me that they’re not engaged in the same greenwash, promoting kinder, gentler language and talking points that do nothing to solve the problem at its source.”

Desmond Butler contributed to this report.


An earlier version of this article incorrectly said the global managing partner of McKinsey is George Sternfels. His name is Bob Sternfels. This version has been corrected.

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