Edelman criticized for his work with oil companies

After the United Nations-sponsored environmental conference in Glasgow last month, public relations giant Edelman congratulated the participants for reaching “a new level of international consensus that climate change is an existential threat to humanity”.

In a statement posted on his website, Edelman also called for “further consideration of corporate climate lobbying efforts” and argued that many of the commitments resulting from the conference “fall short of what is needed. to avoid a global climate catastrophe “.

Coming from a company that has worked with Exxon Mobil, Shell, and trade groups that lobby for the fossil fuel industry, the pro-environmental stance has ringed hollow for some people inside and outside the l ‘business.

Some of the criticism leveled at Edelman has taken the form of a petition from Clean Creatives, an initiative led by environmental activist Jamie Henn that targets PR firms and advertising agencies that work with oil and gas companies. The petition was circulated around the time of the conference, known as COP26, and has been signed by more than 100 people, including activists, academics, writers, actors, diplomats and filmmakers.

“Several private conversations with Edelman asking them to drop these clients went nowhere,” the petition says. “Given the stakes, we are now releasing our request to Edelman: Drop Exxon Mobil and all other fossil fuel customers. “

Public relations companies care only about their image, and the petition prompted the company to schedule a video conference for its employees on November 15 to address the issue.

Richard Edelman, CEO and son of the company’s founder, chaired the meeting, which was attended by thousands of employees. During the call, he described climate change as the biggest threat facing humanity and said business leaders should take the lead in trying to tackle it, according to three employees who have described the meeting on condition of anonymity to discuss internal conversations. He also said Edelman has started a 60-day review of the companies she represents to make sure they’re eco-friendly, people say.

An employee asked a question: Would Edelman potentially move away from his fossil fuel customers? According to the three employees, Mr. Edelman’s response was blunt: “No.

He added that the energy industry was in transition and needed Edelman’s services. He went on to say that Edelman will reject projects that delay progress towards a future with net greenhouse gas emissions.

Mr. Edelman and other company executives did not respond to more than 50 questions about Edelman’s oil and gas work submitted by employees in a chat room accompanying the video meeting. Many of these questions expressed skepticism about Edelman’s work for fossil fuel companies while championing environmental initiatives.

As global warming wreaks havoc on the planet, the energy industry is working to reduce climate-damaging emissions by investing in a technology known as carbon capture and storage, among other companies. At the same time, 45 banks, insurers and asset managers have pledged to use the $ 130 trillion they control to meet the targets of net zero emissions in their investments by 2050, a target which, according to critics, does not go far enough as financial institutions continue to invest in fossil fuel companies.

A number of public relations firms and advertising agencies have severed ties with the oil and gas industry in recent years over fears of reviving the image of companies that have played a role in environmental degradation. Edelman’s strategy is less clear-cut. He says on his website that he thinks “very carefully about the companies we work for.”

The 69-year-old company has a long-standing relationship with fossil fuels. She started working with Shell, Europe’s largest oil company, over 15 years ago. This fall, as Edelman prepared to move his headquarters out of Chicago’s Aon Center, Mr. Edelman wrote a blog post who described how much his father loved the location: “He was so proud that his company was in the same building as the giant Standard Oil of Indiana.

In a statement to the New York Times, Edelman said he was “unable to comment on specific client commitments due to confidentiality commitments with all of our clients,” adding that he would not work with deniers. climate change, a policy the company established in 2015.

Companies whose business it is to shape public opinion are likely to side with the oil and gas companies as long as they can keep taking their money, which can be important, said Christine Arena, who has resigned from his position as executive vice president of the corporate responsibility division of Edelman in 2015 with five colleagues who had expressed concerns about the company’s work for fossil fuel customers.

“The agency was more focused on fossil fuel customers and, therefore, the interests of those customers, and that will likely continue until fossil fuel traders face the kinds of restrictions tobacco companies or companies face. pharmaceuticals are facing, ”said Ms. Arena, who now heads a production company, Generous Films.

She said Edelman’s pledge not to work with climate change deniers was empty. “It’s a convenient thing to say they don’t work for climate deniers because none of the big trading organizations for fossil fuel companies say they think climate change is a hoax,” he said. Ms. Arena said.

Edelman has long had unpopular clients. In 2019, after objections from his own employees, Edelman decided to stop working with GEO Group, a private prison company that had contracts with the Trump administration to run immigration detention centers. For decades Edelman helped promote cigarettes and did not stop until 1997, after Mr. Edelman was asked to drop British American Tobacco as a customer.

In 2019, the Massachusetts attorney general filed a lawsuit against Exxon Mobil accusing it of misleading investors about the dangers of climate change. In a section on Exxon Mobil efforts to hide what he knew about the fossil fuel industry’s role in the problem, the lawsuit notes that Edelman was among the public relations firms hired by the oil and gas giant, which the attorney general accused for carrying out “a tobacco industry style campaign to sow doubt and confusion among the public.”

In 2018, Edelman was paid $ 4.4 million by the American Fuel and Petrochemical Manufacturers, a lobby group, making him the trade body’s second highest-paid independent contractor, according to the group’s tax returns. .

Casey Norton, Exxon spokesperson, declined to comment on its dealings with public relations firms and advertising agencies. Mr. Norton said in an email that Exxon has “a responsibility to our customers, employees, communities and shareholders to represent their interests in public policy discussions that impact our business.”

Debbie Davis, associate dean in the media and communications faculty at Texas Tech University, said many PR firms remained keen to work with all kinds of clients, even if it involved criticism.

“There are still agencies that work with casinos and tobacco companies – these are the choices made by capitalism,” she said. “Edelman has several choices. They can choose to take a stand, they can go more halfway, or they can decide not to change at all.

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