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The fight to hold PR firms accountable


Climate change activists of Extinction Rebellion group during a protest at the COP26 climate conference in Glasgow, Scotland.

Marcos del Mazo | LightRocket | Getty Images

LONDON — The public relations industry has a PR problem.

The role of PR firms and ad agencies in “greenwashing” fossil fuels has come under intense scrutiny in recent months, with communications firms accused of obstructing climate action by spreading disinformation on behalf of their clients.

A peer-reviewed study published late last year in the journal Climatic Change was the first to comprehensively document the role that PR firms have played in helping the world’s most profitable oil and gas companies improve their environmental image and block climate action.

It shows that energy giants have relied on PR firms and ad agencies to finesse their public messaging for more than three decades.

For instance, the authors note how the PR industry has played a key role in downplaying the seriousness of the climate crisis, promoting industry-favored solutions as the preferred course of action and emphasizing the benefits of fossil fuel use.

To be sure, the burning of fossil fuels, such as coal, oil and gas, is the chief driver of the climate emergency.

And yet, the role of PR companies in climate politics has typically been overlooked, in large part because communications firms have sought to remain in keeping with the adage that “the best PR is invisible PR.”

“My bottom line was, you know, we really ought to pay attention to this,” Bob Brulle, visiting professor of environment and society at Brown University, and lead author on the paper, told CNBC via telephone.

None of them want to talk about this but we must because this represents our industry’s greatest contribution to the climate crisis.

Christine Arena

Former executive vice president at Edelman

The study says PR firms were responsible for some of the terms still used today to try to justify climate inaction, such as “clean coal,” “renewable natural gas” and “carbon footprint.”

Academic research quantifying the PR industry’s role in climate politics has since been followed up by intensifying pressure from external campaign groups, scientists and environmental activists.

Now, the prospect of U.S. congressional hearings is likely to turn up the heat even further.

Brulle told CNBC that this development makes it clear that the issue has “moved from peripheral to core.”

Congressional hearings

Lawmakers grilled oil and gas chief executives last year in a showcase congressional hearing on climate disinformation. Executives from the world’s largest oil companies defended themselves and their company’s actions at the Oct. 28 hearing — one which had parallels to the iconic 1994 hearing that led to the downfall of Big Tobacco.

Shortly thereafter, Carolyn B. Maloney, the chair of the Committee on Oversight and Reform, issued subpoenas to ExxonMobil, Chevron, BP America, Shell, the American Petroleum Institute, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce for…


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