Inside the campaign to push PR firms to fire fossil fuel clients
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Five years ago, Christine Arena, then an executive vice president at the elite PR firm Edelman, left her job because she felt she could no longer support the agency’s work with fossil fuel companies and industry front groups. Five of her colleagues did the same thing
“I resigned because it became clear that my agency role and professional goals as a climate communicator were incongruous with the agency’s business priorities,” says Arena, whose current company, Generous Films
[Image: Clean Creatives]Fossil Free Media
Public relations and ad agencies have a long history with the fossil fuel industry, developing together some techniques for deflecting criticism that were later copied by Big Tobacco. (Amy Westervelt’s podcast, *Drilled
Clean Creatives hopes to push many more agencies to follow, in the same way that groups such as 350.org pushed banks to stop funding coal and Arctic drilling. Key to the new campaign are the creative directors, designers, and other individuals working at the agencies. “They are much more effective messengers to their firms than a bunch of radical climate activists are,” says Henn. They have sway over their employers. “Creatives are the people that are the real value for these firms,” he says. “The account executives making the deals maybe get the money and the credit, but these firms only function because they have their top creators, their top directors, their top designers. So if those people start to speak out, it could have a really big impact.” Individuals working in an agency can pledge not to work on fossil clients.
Other businesses can also pressure their own PR agencies, he says. “There are thousands of businesses out there who care about sustainability and put out sustainability reports and probably ask really detailed questions for their suppliers about how they make their products, but don’t ask the same questions of their PR companies,” he says. Clients can push for transparency: Most PR agencies that work with fossil companies aren’t advertising that fact. Clients can also threaten to leave. “If Unilever said tomorrow that they only wanted to work with companies that didn’t work with fossil fuels, it would transform the industry overnight. They spend something like $2 billion a year on advertising—that’s way more than Exxon or Chevron.” (Unilever actually spends more than $8 billion
Political and legal pressure can also push agencies to change. “In the U.K., BP was forced to drop an advertising campaign they were doing, because an NGO called Client Earth filed a legal complaint saying that it was false advertising,” says Henn. “BP was trying to pretend that they were a renewable energy company when they really weren’t.” In Massachusetts, attorney general Maura Healey recently filed a lawsuit alleging that ExxonMobil’s greenwashing was misleading consumers and investors; Henn says that agencies should realize that there’s a risk that their emails will be subpoenaed as similar lawsuits continue.
Still, it’s a challenge to change the industry. “In my view, this is about profits, risks, and rewards,” says Arena. “A single fossil fuel client, such as API or Shell, can generate millions of dollars in agency revenues annually. By comparison, a single sustainability client, such as Sierra Club or Patagonia, can generate a few hundred thousand. Therefore, many agencies seem to have calculated that the financial benefits of working with fossil fuel clients outweigh the reputational risk. Perhaps that is why we are seeing so many large agencies continue their fossil fuel work to this day, despite the escalating severity of the climate crisis.”
“Having said this, I am optimistic that we will see drastic change as agency reputations are called into question and the public becomes better informed,” she says. “Shareholders, employees, and clients expect agencies to live up to their words and want to be part of this discussion. This is a public conversation that is long overdue, and I am glad we are finally having it.”