PR giant Edelman cuts ties with oil industry

PR giant Edelman cuts ties with oil industry

Megaphones against blue sky
Sakarin Sawasdinaka
Even the masters of spin can't make fossil fuels look good.

This, I believe, is how societal change occurs. Even big changes happen a little bit at a time, unseen, below the surface, until suddenly, seemingly out of nowhere, a big movement makes news.

The biggest influencers in our society are business, government and the media. The movement towards increased transparency, facilitated by the media and the tremendous growth of the Internet, has forced business and government to become more responsive to prevailing opinion.

Sitting at the intersection of all these factors are the public relations firms. Founded after the second world war by Edwin Bernays, nephew of Sigmund Freud, the fledgling science of PR was based on the discovery that men and women, when making decisions, are generally influenced more by “unconscious fears and desires” than they are by facts. The exploitation of this discovery and the subsequent growth of the advertising industry has been a key driver of the American economy as consumers were led down a road that took them from buying what they need to buying what they want.

With the revelation of mankind’s role in destabilizing the Earth’s climate system surfacing, PR firms often found themselves on both sides of the issue, helping their clients promote whatever perspective was in their self-interest. But with the increasing level of transparency required of companies today, executives are finding themselves held accountable for the impact of not only their own actions, but also those of their suppliers and their clients.

'PR' does not stand for 'petroleum representation'

Last year, a large number of PR firms came forward, in response to surveys administered by public interest groups, with a pledge to stop representing groups that are actively engaged in the denial of scientific consensus that clearly states that climate change is directly linked to the combustion of fossil fuels. Noticeably absent from that list was Edelman, the world’s largest PR firm, who counted among its clients a number of major oil companies and their representatives, including the American Petroleum Institute (API). Despite that Edelman had supported numerous sustainability initiatives, including publishing joint papers with the Earth Institute, it maintained that it evaluated clients on a case-by-case basis.

That included representation of TransCanada to sell the Keystone XL pipeline to the American public. Once Edelman's part in the strategy was brought to light, TransCanada severed its relationship with it. Then, after a major article in The Guardian on the subject, Edelman came out with a statement that it no longer would represent climate deniers.

Now, amidst the movement for divestment from fossil fuel companies, Edelman has just announced that it is terminating its relationship with API. The relationship had been lucrative, with billings totaling some $327 million over the past decade. Circumstances behind the split were not immediately clear, although it appears that the Edelman subsidiary that has handled the account, Blue Advertising (which also handles the American Wind Energy Association), will split off from Edelman and continue to handle the account. This move is consistent with statements that Edelman chief Richard Edelman has made in the past, such as, “There is a significant failure of communications regarding the environment.”

Ideology meets common sense

Ideology aside, there are also practical reasons for the move. More large clients, such as Walmart and Unilever, are scrutinizing all their suppliers to ensure that they are in alignment with their own sustainability principles.

Little by little, actions become visible. What was once acceptable is no longer so. This is how the world changes.

This article originally appeared at Justmeans.