The world’s largest PR agency has learned a lesson in the power of public pressure to force corporate policy. After months of waffling on the issue, Edelman yesterday told the Guardian that it would end work for coal producers and groups who deny climate change.
The move is particularly interesting because Edelman holds itself up as a model for the ethical practice of public relations, and it almost certainly toughened its position in response to some pretty negative PR of its own. For over a year, the agency seemed to agonize over how to manage a growing reputation problem related to its handling of fossil-fuel clients and legislative groups who deny climate change or fight regulation of pollutants. It tried to blunt the controversy by parsing the issue in media interviews, then announced it had ended its work for the American Petroleum Institute. But watchdogs pointed out that the resignation was more symbol than sacrifice given that the budget had declined as the price of oil plummeted.
In July, several key executives in Edelman’s corporate responsibility practice departed over its muddled position – an embarrassing development. A climate change group started a petition to force it to resign its fossil-fuel clients. Even worse for an agency gunning to hit the $1 billion threshold, two clients left, and others reportedly expressed concerns.
This isn’t the first time Edelman has been suffered reputation damage. It has the dubious distinction of pioneering digital astroturfing in 2006 with a fake blog called Wal-Marting Across America. The result was a public scandal, but it pushed the agency to raise its game when it came to ethical use of social media and transparency in agency practice.
When it comes to the climate change principle, the process was once again messy. Its management of the issue wasn’t exactly textbook, and its motives probably aren’t pure. But that’s precisely why the move is so significant and maybe even encouraging for our business.
It’s easy to tell clients that they need to do the right thing – that their business practices must be above reproach and their decisions should be principled. It’s easy to give lip service to ethical decison-making and transparency in the practice of communications. But it’s harder to execute against those principles in the real world.
Maybe now Edelman, as the PR industry leader by size of business, can start to lead the industry in other, more important ways. This firsthand reminder of the power of PR and the value of public pressure in making change might be a first step.