Nov 16, 2021 - Energy & Environment

PR giant vows climate focus and defends work with oil giants

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Edelman, the world's largest PR firm, is vowing to make climate change a bedrock focus even as it rejects activist pressure to sever ties with Big Oil.

Driving the news: The company on Monday unveiled new principles and plans, along with new hires to guide the efforts.

  • Edelman said it's committed to working with clients focused on "accelerating action" on climate and vowed to "put science and facts first" in its output.
  • They're doing a 60-day review of their portfolio and also plan to "formalize clear criteria for climate communications." Edelman launched a new practice called Edelman Impact to direct its ESG and sustainability offerings.
  • Robert Casamento has joined the firm as its first global head of climate. His prior gigs include founding director of the World Economic Forum's global climate initiatives and top climate and sustainability roles at Deloitte and EY.

What they're saying: CEO Richard Edelman, in an interview, said this year's disasters — including flooding in Bangladesh and Germany and the California wildfires — helped spur the new efforts.

  • So did the UN climate science body's sobering August report. Edelman also said he's motivated by "disappointment" with the just-concluded UN climate summit, noting that countries' emissions pledges remain far off Paris agreement goals.
  • "I think the private sector is going to have to lead now," he said. "I'm really excited about the challenge that we have in front of us." He sees their work at the intersection of clean product development and consumer uptake, giving agriculture as an example.
  • "There may be product changes, and formulation changes, and ultimately, the producers will respond to consumer signals. And so I think we have a very important role to play ... it's on both supply side and demand side that we want to work," he said.

The intrigue: The climate push comes as PR and ad agencies are under growing pressure over their work with fossil fuel companies, including oil majors like Exxon. The group Clean Creatives launched last year.

  • An open letter last week with over 100 signatures from actors, advocates and others called on Edelman to drop those clients because "ending advertising and PR for fossil-fuel companies is a crucial step toward climate justice." Clean Creatives and the group Slow Factory organized it.
  • Advocates bashed Edelman yesterday because their new plan does not call for severing ties with Exxon and others. Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson, a climate expert who corralled signatures, said "the only reason not to drop them is greed — and lack of respect for our shared future on this planet."

The other side: "I believe in the energy industry. I think that they are making the transition. They are absolutely in a change mentality, in part because of shareholder pressure. And in part I think they see the business opportunity," Edelman told Axios.

  • "We work with oil majors. I'm proud of our work. I think that bigger question over time is, how we can help them express their transitions," he said.
  • However, asked broadly about the 60-day review, Edelman said that if clients are not committed to the new principles they announced, "then I think we'll withdraw from those relationships."
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