The PR industry has spent decades proving that PR really works. The fruits of a quality PR campaign aren’t always easily measurable or even obvious, but we’ve made great strides in demonstrating the power of PR and the value of its outcomes.
That’s why it strikes me as ironic that some of the largest global PR firms may be wishing they could claim otherwise, at least when it comes to climate science and PR. Edelman, the largest U.S. firm, in particular is under fire for its work shaping perception and policy around climate change. The problem is, it has done so in ways that many feel are designed to obstruct action and hide the truth.
The tempest around climate science and PR blew up recently after publication of a peer-reviewed paper on the role of public relations in the climate policy debate. Published late last year in the journal Climatic Change, it studied the cozy relationship between Big PR and Big Oil. The authors call out several PR giants for creating and promoting “front groups” (with misleading names like Foundation For Clean Air Progress) that actually oppose clean-air legislation. Such firms also get credit for oxymoronic industry terms like “clean coal” and “renewable natural gas.” Co-author Robert Brulle has fiercely criticized fossil-fuel companies for “efforts to greenwash their reputations and shift public opinion” and wants to shine a light on the role of PR agencies.
Things got hotter when the group Clean Creatives and more than 450 scientists signed a letter calling for PR and creative agencies to drop fossil-fuel companies that seek to “obfuscate or downplay our data and the risk of the climate emergency.” The group fingered Edelman for its work for many brand-name fossil-fuel companies and trade organizations.
Under pressure, Edelman announced a “review” of more than 330 companies on its roster, presumably for potential violations of its stated principles. But there’s no evidence it ever dropped any clients. CEO Richard Edelman offered a feeble defense common among those who align with unpopular businesses. He explained that the fossil-fuel industry is “in transition” and therefore needs his agency’s services more than ever. In an even weaker response, he claimed he couldn’t divulge client names or discuss decisions about representation due to confidentiality agreements.
The crisis playbook doesn’t call for evasion, but that’s what Edelman’s responses sound like to me. Most disappointing, Richard Edelman reiterated an earlier pledge not to work with climate-change deniers – a promise that sounds pretty hollow today. As Christine Arena, a former Edelman executive who resigned over its work for oil and gas clients, told The New York Times, “It’s a convenient thing, to say they don’t work for climate deniers, because none of the big trade organizations for fossil fuel corporations are saying they believe climate change is a hoax.” It’s a straw-man defense and not even a very good one.
But the deepest irony, and the reason Edelman’s failure to respond with transparency is so maddening, is that the agency has done excellent work to align its brand with a priceless brand attribute – trust. Its eponymous Trust Barometer has tracked public confidence in institutions for 22 years. It is eagerly covered by top media and disseminated at prestigious meetings. The latest release is unveiled in lofty terms on the agency’s own website.
The 2021 Edelman Trust Barometer reveals an epidemic of misinformation and widespread mistrust of societal institutions and leaders around the world. Adding to this is a failing trust ecosystem unable to confront the rampant infodemic, leaving the four institutions—business, government, NGOs and media—in an environment of information bankruptcy and a mandate to rebuild trust and chart a new path forward.
The description of our national trust deficit is so dramatic that it practically cries out for a strong, strategic partner to help fulfill the mandate of our institutions – a partner, of course, like Edelman itself. I worked at Edelman for five years over two decades ago and have always been proud of that experience. Yet, when it comes to handling its own reputation threat, Edelman is part of that failing “trust ecosystem.” As a steward of brand reputations and a leader of our industry, it can do better. And as an industry, we deserve leaders who are up for the challenge.