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Pressure on creatives: PR, advertising firms targeted by fossil fuel divestment movement

Various climate change-related placards carried by protesters at the Global Climate Strike Rally and March in downtown San Francisco.

Various climate change-related placards carried by protesters at the Global Climate Strike Rally and March in downtown San Francisco in September 2019.

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As fossil fuel companies' social license to operate becomes increasingly frayed, more industries in their orbit are getting entangled in the reputational quagmire that is now part and parcel of any activity that exacerbates the climate crisis.

Airlines have faced "flygskam" — or flight shame — which has seen some travelers shun air travel, heightening pressure for the sector to demonstrate that it can develop a flight path to net-zero emissions. Similarly, carmakers around the world are racing to develop fully electric models in response to escalating consumer and regulatory pressure. And energy providers the world over are rushing to slash their reliance on fossil fuels as the clean energy transition gathers pace. 

Now advertising and public relations companies, it seems, are also feeling the pressure from the societal drive for a rapid net-zero transition — and it is posing difficult questions for an industry far more used to pushing messages from behind the scenes than being front and center of the story itself.

Yet that is precisely where the industry has found itself, after a new grassroots campaign — Clean Creatives — launched this month in the United States, aimed at pressuring advertising, PR and public affairs agencies to end what it regards as "greenwashing and misinformation campaigns that help delay climate action."

We can't let these major oil companies that are spending most of their capex on oil and gas run a bunch of advertising pretending they're renewable energy companies.

Anyone doubting the seriousness of the campaign needs only look at the team behind it. Clean Creatives is backed by the same organizations and individuals that helped trigger the fastest divestment movement in history, convincing thousands of investors to ditch fossil-fuel assets and arguably doing more damage to fossil-fuel companies' license to operate than any other campaign.

Backed by climate activist and journalist Bill McKibben — who wrote an article in the New Yorker titled "When creatives go destructive" calling on major advertising and PR firms to stop working with oil, gas and coal companies that are not taking concerted action to decarbonize — the campaign aims to shine a spotlight on the scale of money being poured into boosting fossil-fuel firms' reputations.

It is a big business. Between 2008 and 2017, fossil-fuel industry trade associations in the U.S. spent almost $1.4 trillion on public relations, advertising and communications, according to Clean Creatives. Since the 1990s, the world's top five public oil companies alone — Exxon, BP, Chevron, Shell and ConocoPhillips — have spent over $3.6 billion on reputational advertising, much of it centered on projecting an environmental and socially responsible image, according to a Brown University study. Yet the actual figure could be even higher, as it is difficult to lift the bonnet on the often private relationships between PR firms and their clients.

Campaigners have long argued that while major fossil fuel companies are spending big sums on publicly pushing messages that suggest they are committed to decarbonizing by investing in greener forms of energy, in reality, the overwhelming majority of their capital expenditure still goes towards oil and gas. Now, this new campaign wants to call out PR and advertising firms on this apparent disconnect.

"That's exactly what we're trying to highlight — we can't let these major oil companies that are spending most of their capex on oil and gas run a bunch of advertising pretending they're renewable energy companies," Jamie Henn, co-founder of global climate campaign group 350.org and producer of the Clean Creatives campaign, told BusinessGreen. "The reason they do that is to maintain their relevance to the economy, to convince politicians that they don't need regulation, and to try and get the public to not worry about the fact that these companies are destroying the planet."

He argued oil and gas company advertising is usually not directed at getting consumers to buy their products and services but is more akin to political lobbying. "This is political advertising that they're running to maintain their influence over public policy," he suggested.

And as pressure ramps up on major advertising and PR firms for change, the impact is already being felt. Almost immediately in response to the Clean Creatives campaign, communications consultancy Porter Novelli announced it would end its working relationship with the American Public Gas Association from 2021. Clean Creatives hopes others soon could follow suit.

"We think this campaign can be quite effective because if there was ever a target that cares deeply about their public image, it's PR and ad people," Henn said. "They're uniquely sensitive to critiques like this."

The pressure on the industry has been building for quite some time already, and the reputational hazards are already being laid bare. Last week, it emerged that FTI Consulting — one of the largest management consultancy and communications firms in the world — has been dropped by at least three clients, while several other global asset managers are also reviewing their relationship with the firm, due to revelations about its controversial work with oil companies in a New York Times expose earlier this month. When contacted by BusinessGreen, the firm declined to comment.

We think this campaign can be quite effective because if there was ever a target that cares deeply about their public image, it's PR and ad people.

"The precedent has now been set that if you want to be known as a green PR company or want to work with clients who care about sustainability, you can't work with the fossil fuel industry," Henn said. "We're seeing that with FTI Consulting, and we're also seeing that with Porter Novelli."

He argued the ripples from these reputational risks have the potential to spread much further than the PR and advertising industry itself, too, as the issue poses wider questions for any company that contracts out its PR and advertising services, not just the agencies themselves.

"A lot of businesses think really deeply about transparency when it comes to sustainability — such as who their suppliers are, what pesticides they use, or whether they are buying materials from sustainable sources," Henn explained. "The same question is rarely asked about their PR and advertising firms, but it's a crucial issue, because if you're paying millions of dollars a year to an agency that is also spreading misinformation on climate change, you're spending against your values — just in the same way that you wouldn't want your organic cereal to come from a wheat field sprayed with pesticides."

Yet it is clear that the industry — like many so many others — is in danger of totting up significant long-term costs in return for the money it earns from fossil fuels in the short term. And just like fossil fuel companies themselves, they also risk upsetting staff and stakeholders, and losing out to competition in a future talent pool drawn from an increasingly climate-conscious public.

Stephen Woodford, CEO of the Advertising Association in the United Kingdom, believes it therefore is becoming increasingly untenable for advertising, PR and lobbying firms to engage in blatant greenwashing on behalf of fossil fuel clients. "I think we've been at that stage for some time, but it is now accelerating partly because it's of huge concern to the people working in the industry," he told BusinessGreen.

But for advertising, PR and lobbying firms looking to avoid the reputational risks of working with fossil fuel industries, there are not always easy answers. Turning down a client contract to run a major PR campaign for an oil major that consistently has lobbied against climate action and has not even signaled its intention to be part of a future net-zero economy is one thing, but more clients from carbon-intensive industries do not fall quite so easily into the climate laggard category.

One could argue, for example, that having set net-zero targets and started to demonstrate a willingness to align with the Paris Agreement goals, oil majors such as Shell, BP and others have an entirely legitimate case for enlisting PR firms to showcase their green efforts. As with the financial divestment movement, there is a valid debate about whether engagement with high-carbon firms that are working to reduce their emissions is more effective than simply severing ties. Many within the energy and PR industries would argue that in publicly showcasing a carbon-intensive firm's decarbonization plans, they help build momentum in support of climate action and make it more likely that ambitious emission reduction strategies are enacted.

Yet the Clean Creatives campaign specifically calls out PR giants such as WPP and its subsidiary Ogilvy for working with Shell and BP, respectively. As with all of the PR firms contacted by BusinessGreen for this article, WPP declined to comment.

Woodford believes agencies may face some difficult decisions over which clients to work with in the short term, but that it will become increasingly straightforward to tell the difference between a fossil fuel company paying lip service to climate action and one which is genuinely intent on reinventing its business over the coming decades in support of a net-zero emission economy.

"I think it's up to each individual firm and management team to make their own decision and judgements for whether their agency believes a company is going fast enough or acting seriously enough to tackle the climate crisis," he said. "But whether that's a favorable or unfavorable view, the pressure from the public and from governance is ultimately all going in one direction, and I think that's a very good thing."

If you want to be known as a green PR company or want to work with clients who care about sustainability, you can't work with the fossil fuel industry.

The Advertising Association has been at the forefront of an industry-wide initiative in the U.K. that launched earlier this month dubbed Ad Net Zero, which aims to achieve net-zero emissions across the development, production and media placement of advertising over the next decade. It also intends to work with production agencies, clients and event organizers to decarbonize the wider value chain, while harnessing the power of their work to influence and promote more sustainable consumer choices.

The initiative has had widespread support from across the advertising sector — including from WPP — according to Woodford, who says Ad Net Zero will be working with advertising businesses "wherever they are on the [net-zero] spectrum to help them improve their performance."

But while much of the focus has been on the negative greenwashing activities of some firms in the industry, advertising, PR and lobbying also can be used to accelerate climate action. For example, last year 20 U.K. advertising and communications agencies including Greenhouse PR, Barley Communications and Borra Co signed a pledge launched by sustainability consultancy Futerra to avoid working on fossil fuel briefs, promising to "use their power for good." McKibben last weekend described PR campaigns and snappy catchphrases used to launder fossil fuel firms' reputations as the kindling "on which the fire of global warming burns," but in the right hands these tactics also can act as grease for the wheels of climate action by drumming up public support for the positive, exciting future the net zero transition offers.

"The sector can help businesses drive positive change," says Woodford. "Momentum is building across all sorts of industries, and I think the role of the advertising and PR industry is to amplify and accelerate that, to help businesses that are doing the right thing win in the marketplace, which can also encourage others to do the same."

As the net zero transition accelerates across economies and societies, there will be challening decisions for companies in all industries to make about the future direction of their business. But for ad and PR agencies which are all too aware of the value of maintaining a strong public reputation, those decisions likely will have to be made very quickly indeed, and the direction of travel suggests the pressure on them to avoid working with laggard fossil fuel firms will only intensify. As Woodford says, the potential impact of the adverting and PR industry on the pace and direction of the net zero transition therefore could be hugely significant.

"Hopefully the tipping point is where you see the full array of competitive forces aligned to reducing the carbon footprint of industry and society, and people competing on this basis," he explains. "This is where advertising is a great driver of competition and innovation."

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