Duncan Meisel helped climate activists tell their stories, as a communications adviser to environmentalists trying to convince the public that oil and gas companies need to change to prevent a climate crisis. Now he is putting pressure on consultants who form those industries’ own messages.
Clean Creatives, the group that helped establish Meisel, is at the forefront of a new tactic in the environmental movement: to target advisers who, activists say, help fossil fuel companies continue to pollute and delay government action by distorting climate debates .
Last September, Clean Creatives had a “F-light”Of advertising and public relations groups that accused them of disseminating“ climate misinformation ”on behalf of their clients.
On Friday, one of those groups responded: Edelman, whose work with oil majors like ExxonMobil has helped make it the world’s largest PR group, has adopted new principles for working with “emissions-intensive” clients.
A review of his work found “zero examples of us making mistakes with facts”, Richard Edelman, the firm’s CEO, told the Financial Times: “What we found, however, was a lack of context.”
If Edelman could not “come to an understanding” about certain customers’ climate commitments, “we will separate our company”, he said. However, so far it has not dropped any customers.
Edelman, along with global advertising groups such as WPP and Dentsu, ranked on the list compiled by Clean Creatives, which persuaded 220 smaller agencies to swear off fossil fuel orders. An Australian campaign, Comms Declare, also encourages communications professionals to “choose your next clients with the climate in mind”.
Following the investigation of FTI Consulting’s oil group campaigns worried some customers by 2020, some communications firms acknowledge the threat posed by such criticism in public. Last August, WPP said one of the “emerging risks” it faced was “increased reputational risk associated with working on environmentally disadvantaged client assignments and / or misrepresenting environmental claims”.
Other corporate advisors face similar pressures from external campaigns, from their own employees, and from a generation of potential recruits.
Last year, a letter of more than 1,100 McKinsey employees said the consulting firm’s “inaction on (or perhaps assistance with)” its clients’ emissions poses a serious risk to its reputation and ability to hire.
Meanwhile, a group of Ivy League law students are appealing to law firms to stop representing fossil fuel customers, and launched a campaign to boycott Gibson Dunn in Los Angeles over its energy work.
The tactics reflect those of environmentalists who have targeted asset managers and banks in hopes of starving heavy capitalists. The activists targeting consultants hope to starve oil and gas companies of the expertise they rely on to influence the debate on climate change.
Clients ‘growing interest in sustainability has boosted consulting firms’ revenues over the past few years, but has also exposed them to accusations of hypocrisy.
“If you have a sustainability team working on one thing and another working on improved oil production, it feels suspicious at best,” says Katharine Wilkinson, a climate activist and author who once worked for Boston Consulting Group.
However, consultants like Capgemini argue the opposite, arguing that they can make the most impact by accelerating the carbon reduction plans of companies that currently emit the most greenhouse gases.
“Like it or not, there is no way to deliver emission reductions without working with these industries to switch quickly,” said Bob Sternfels, McKinsey’s global managing partner, in an ad published after news of his employees’ letter appeared.
“We have to be in the room to work for them. Those companies will be among those that need the most help, ”echoes Edelman.
This, Wilkinson argued, was “sleep logic” because “all these firms were in the room … and it did not go very well”.
Two recent papers by Robert Brulle, a visiting professor at Brown University, painted PR firms as “key organizational actor[s] in climate policy ”and concluded that oil companies’ advertisements“ are a dominant strategy to manipulate environmental discourse ”.
Just as activists awoke to the role of such advisers, Brulle told the FT, so were legal and regulatory authorities.
The U.S. Home Affairs Committee asked last September ExxonMobil and other oil companies for details of their communications with advertising and PR firms as part of a review of what it called their long-running campaign “to spread disinformation about the role of fossil fuels in causing global warming”.
The British Competition and Market Authority has meanwhile launched an investigation into “greenwashing”, which is hitting unsupported sustainability claims.
Consultants like Edelman have not worked for tobacco companies for years, but the new investigation of their fossil fuel work still has to persuade them to avoid the industry. Activists like Wilkinson believe that pressure from their own employees can change that.
Fighters have long neglected the role of consultants, she said, but now understand it as “core resources of talent, expertise and skill that help keep the fossil fuel industry in business. . . You go after any of those businesses and you start depriving these companies of something that has helped them keep running efficiently. ”
America’s biggest polluters and its biggest PR and advertising industries “grew up together”, said Melissa Aronczyk, co-author of a new book it describes how PR advisers from the 1960s helped polluting companies convince the public that they were “a legitimate voice in the [environmental] talk”.
Aronczyk, who once worked in advertising, recalled that her generation ignored the inconsistencies in the representation of such clients “because we were so in love with the creative work we did”. The generation now entering the workforce, she said, was more environmentally conscious.
Those new recruits are also essential to consultants’ ability to keep up with the slick social media campaigns their clients are now demanding, Clean Creatives’ Meisel said: “I’m not sure any PR firm will know how to ‘ Doing a TikTok without their Gen Z employees. ”
Additional post by Alistair Gray in London
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