As public pressure mounts to tackle climate change, the oil and gas industry has doubled down on its decadeslong effort to position natural gas as part of the solution. But with people increasingly aware of the downsides of natural gas — methane emissions that counteract much of its carbon savings, unsafe levels of indoor air pollution, and radioactive waste, to name a few — and multiple cities banning natural gas in new buildings, it’s become a tougher sell.
That’s where public relations and advertising have long lent a hand designing campaigns that shift attention away from the industry’s problem areas. Last year, Porter Novelli helped craft a marketing campaign for the lobbying group American Public Gas Association that highlighted the possibilities of upward mobility powered by natural gas, particularly for young people of color — without saying “natural gas” too loudly. It’s the sort of thing PR pros have done for the fossil fuel industry for a century.
But then suddenly, in November, the self-described “purpose communications consultancy” dumped APGA.
“Porter Novelli is committed to regularly assessing evolving issues, the science that guides them and their impact on diverse, global audiences,” the firm said in a statement to New Yorker writer Bill McKibben. “As such, we have determined our work with the American Public Gas Association is incongruous with our increased focus and priority on addressing climate justice — we will no longer support that work beyond 2020.”
It was the first claimed win for Clean Creatives, a new advocacy campaign aimed at the marketing and advertising firms that have helped the fossil fuel industry establish and maintain its position in society. Clean Creatives considers their push a first step toward widening the circle of climate accountability.
“Our hope is that we can lead to a full reconsideration of the PR and ad industries’ role in propping up the power and influence of the fossil fuel industry,” Duncan Meisel, Clean Creatives’ campaign manager, told HuffPost. “They’ve played a really crucial role in extending the lifespan of the fossil fuel industry, and they also have an opportunity to help us move beyond it.”
“I’d like to see creatives ... start to either question the work they’re doing or refuse to work on these accounts.”
In a lot of ways, the PR industry and the fossil fuel industry have grown up together. The modern oil industry began in America, and the modern PR industry was born here too, spawned as a way for corporations to deal with muckraking journalists. Since its inception in the early 1900s, the PR industry has counted fossil fuel companies among its top clients. It was Standard Oil publicist Ivy Lee who came up with the idea of bringing all the oil companies together in one trade group, the American Petroleum Institute, in 1919.
PR and advertising agencies have helped the industry craft its image as central to both the economy and patriotism — after all, America started the oil industry so if you’re against it, you must be against America, and capitalism too. (Many of the first publicists cut their teeth helping the government sell wars to the public. Even the phrase “public relations” was an attempt by early practitioner Edward Bernays to rebrand propaganda after the Nazis had sullied that term.)
A century’s worth of propaganda laid the groundwork for denying climate science. When oil companies and some of their favorite think tanks began to publicly question the validity of climate science in the 1990s, communications consultants specifically targeted groups with a high degree of emotional connection to patriotism, capitalism and masculinity. Their campaigns focused on the Americanness of the industry and its importance to the economy, alongside assertions that the science was uncertain and there was no need to panic.
Environmental sociologist Robert Brulle has been studying these campaigns for years and says whether it’s a Super Bowl ad or a speech to Congress, the message generally touches on the same key points: “The idea that [oil and gas companies are] responsible actors addressing this issue. And that there’s no need for any kind of government regulation or intervention. And that if we did have intervention, it could upset our economy and lead to the loss of our wonderful way of life. And, oh, by the way, we’re really not all that sure about the science anyway. And we’ve got time to study this more... And here we are 31 years later and we still haven’t taken action that addresses the scale of climate change.”
Consider some recent campaigns:
The American Petroleum Institute describes its “Energy for Progress” ad campaign as “highlighting the natural gas and oil industry’s leadership in reducing emissions to record low levels and supporting economic and environmental progress in local communities.”
Chevron claims it’s “bringing affordable, reliable, ever-cleaner energy to America.”
Shell has #MakeTheFuture, a campaign that highlights not only the company’s supposed leadership in the transition to cleaner energy but also another all-time industry favorite, the role that consumer choice plays in climate change. In one ad, Shell product manager Katie offers customers “carbon-neutral options” (we’re not told what exactly those are) so that they can “play their role as well.”
Based on one of Brulle’s recent studies, we can expect to see an explosion of pro-oil PR and advertising as President-elect Joe Biden takes office, and especially if Democrats manage to flip the Senate. Looking at all the various reasons that fossil fuel companies pay for PR and advertising, Brulle and his co-authors found that the key driver is the likelihood of regulation being passed.
Ever since the Green New Deal ― which connects climate action with racial justice ― went mainstream, advertising and PR firms have been hard at work pushing the idea of the fossil fuel industry as central to diversity, alternating between campaigns that highlight its diverse hires and those that argue a transition away from fossil fuels will adversely impact marginalized communities (yet another reason to actually plan for a just transition).
Porter Novelli helped APGA highlight diversity in its “Natural Gas. Genius.” campaign and noted in recent reports that “Hispanic millennials” in particular have connected with the messaging. Back in 2018, global PR giant Edelman won an award for the “Engineering Real-Life Heroes” campaign it crafted for Shell, which showcased the company’s commitment to women and people of color in STEM careers and appealed to millennials by featuring “Black Panther” star Letitia Wright. Edelmen made the endgame clear in its award submission: “The campaign ... resulted in a positive impact on Shell brand perception and trust” and an increase in people “believing that Shell is ‘actively addressing future energy needs.’”
In 2014, long before the Clean Creatives campaign came about, Edelman made headlines when it was one of the only leading PR firms in the world to refuse to explicitly rule out working with climate change deniers in a Guardian survey. Amid considerable backlash, the firm then announced it would no longer handle such campaigns, but a year later several executives left Edelman over its continued work for fossil fuel industry clients.
Christine Arena, the first of those executives to exit, is now consulting for Clean Creatives. She said Porter Novelli’s firing of a big client is a bold move — especially during an economic downturn. She wants to see other firms follow suit.
“What I’d like to see is Ogilvy, Omnicom, WPP, the big [PR and advertising] majors come forward and either swear off these clients or make a pledge,” Arena said. “I’d like to see creatives in those agencies start to either question the work they’re doing or refuse to work on these accounts.”
She added that she hopes Clean Creatives will help people in these agencies understand that the campaigns they’re creating don’t square with the fossil fuel industry’s actual commitments on climate. While big oil and gas companies produce a lot of ads about climate, they only invest about 1% of their budgets in green technologies. The rest is still going to fossil fuels. Their advertising approaches might be changing, said Arena, but it’s clear that the underlying industry is not.
So far, the oil and gas companies seem unconcerned by the efforts to shame PR firms into dumping them as clients. Audrey Casey, a spokesperson for APGA, said Porter Novelli’s decision had no impact on the association. Citing the need for an “all-of-the-above” approach on climate, Casey told HuffPost: “APGA believes that middle-ground solutions exist. We welcome the opportunity to work alongside all those who are interested in considering a variety of emissions reductions pathways as we move toward an energy future that prioritizes consumers’ ability to choose affordable and reliable energy.”
That’s remarkably similar to the statement Edelman CEO Richard Edelman sent to PR Week in November in response to the Clean Creatives launch: “We believe that business, government and society must work together to address climate change while supporting economic growth and meeting the needs of a growing global population.”
The American Petroleum Institute’s current marketing campaign echoes the same “both-and” messaging. “Climate Solutions & Essential Energy: We have to do both,” it proclaims.
Slick advertising can do a lot to massage public perception. What’s even trickier is the entangled nature of PR messaging and media coverage, according to Melissa Aronczyk, associate professor of media studies at Rutgers University.
“I don’t think most people realize how close the media is to strategic communications firms,” Aronczyk said. She noted how often stories we see in the media come from reporters being pitched by companies or nonprofit organizations on different sides of the climate issue. “Much more than any particular ad or firm or message, it’s the whole climate of publicity that’s the problem, where we think it’s normal to get information this way,” she said.
Aronczyk pointed to a much more deeply entrenched problem: that oftentimes we don’t even know where the information we consume is coming from and whether someone is trying to influence us.
This has been true for a century or more as well. The traditional American breakfast, the connection between cars and masculinity, corporate philanthropy: Like a lot of things we think are an outgrowth of culture, these are all ideas that were deliberately created and spread by the public relations industry. Bernays made up the all-American breakfast on behalf of a bacon client who needed to increase sales, and he put his uncle Sigmund Freud’s theories into practice crafting ads for the automotive industry that were heavy on phallic references. Ivy Lee created corporate philanthropy on behalf of the Rockefellers as a way to burnish the family’s image after a string of bad press.
America’s business-friendly understanding of the environment also grew up in parallel with public relations. “Teddy Roosevelt and Gifford Pinchot created really the original PR around the environment,” Aronczyk said, “and it was very much ‘let’s talk about it as a resource we need to manage, that way we can cut down trees if we need to but we’ll give you some parks over here.’ That’s still mostly how we think about the environment.”
One dropped client now is unlikely to rewire an industry that’s spent a century cementing approval for fossil fuels. But Clean Creatives has launched at a time when young climate activists can sniff out greenwashing a mile away, journalists tend to approach oil companies with more skepticism, and as soon as an oil giant tweets anything about carbon capture or carbon footprints, they’re hit with a wave of what environmental writer (and my “Hot Take” podcast co-host) Mary Heglar call “greentrolling.” The fossil fuel industry will probably always be able to find people to help tell its story, but if its access to the best and brightest is blocked, and the media and the public are increasingly not buying its claims, the industry may just lose its most precious asset: social license.
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