Edelman’s dirty PR
The PR giant is breaking its climate promise by creating glowing campaigns for an anti-climate lobbying group.
Public relations is in the midst of a climate reckoning. In the last few months, more than 210 advertising agencies and 600 independent creatives have signed the Clean Creatives pledge, promising to never create marketing for the fossil fuel industry.
But the world’s largest PR agency, Edelman, has refused to sign. In an internal meeting revealed by the New York Times last week, CEO Richard Edelman told the firm’s thousands of employees that the fossil fuel industry was “in transition and needed Edelman’s services.”
Edelman insisted, however, that climate change is “the greatest threat facing humanity.” He said the firm would still uphold climate-friendly values. In addition to his 2014 promise to never work on climate denial campaigns, Edelman said the company will also “reject projects that delay progress toward a future with net-zero greenhouse gas emissions.”
But Edelman is currently creating projects that delay progress toward a net-zero future. For example, it is taking millions every year to improve the public image of one of the most anti-climate policy lobbying groups in America: The American Fuel and Petrochemical Manufacturers.
What is AFPM? How much is it paying Edelman for marketing? What work is Edelman creating for AFPM? How does that work delay climate progress? Independent climate researcher Connor Gibson has all the answers. Here’s his inaugural investigation for HEATED.
How Edelman promotes climate destruction
By Connor Gibson
Since its 2014 promise to stop working on climate denial campaigns, Edelman has taken $20.2 million to promote one of the most resoundingly anti-climate lobbying groups in America.
HEATED obtained the most recent tax filings from the American Fuel and Petrochemical Manufacturers (AFPM), an oil and gas trade association that even some oil majors have renounced over its intense lobbying efforts to stall climate policies.
We also discovered details of specific campaign work that Edelman did for the AFPM, the first time such work has been reported. It claims the anti-climate lobbying group is “making progress” by promoting fossil fuels.
Edelman did not return a question for comment.
AFPM works to delay climate progress
The AFPM is a well-known climate policy villain. It has spent tens of millions of dollars on lobbying at the federal level. Most recently, the group opposed the methane reduction provisions of the Build Back Better Act, which are widely accepted as an immediate climate mitigation priority. The AFPM also recently lobbied against carbon taxes, both in the state of Washington and at the federal level.
The AFPM has played a lead role this year in spreading state laws that criminalize protest against fossil fuel companies. It worked closely on this effort with the American Legislative Exchange Council—a group Edelman disavowed due to its anti-climate advocacy.
The AFPM also helped Koch Industries create a front group to attack electric vehicles; partnered with Koch to help the Trump administration weaken fuel economy standards; worked to repeal the Clean Power Plan; and opposed ozone regulations. In 2009, the AFPM opposed the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s decision to classify greenhouse gases as pollutant, saying it was “based on selective science.”
The AFPM funds climate denial groups like the Heartland Institute, which received $150,000 from AFPM from 2017 to 2018. The AFPM’s anti-climate work is so egregious that many oil companies have renounced their memberships because of it, including Shell, Total and BP.
But Edelman does not have a problem with this. It has made millions promoting the group’s public image over the last several years.
Edelman makes millions to promote AFPM
HEATED investigated how much Edelman was paid by the AFPM since 2015, the year after Edelman pledged not to assist climate change deniers.
By combining the freshly disclosed 2020 expense of $2.6 million with previously disclosed contract expenses in AFPM IRS filings, we calculated a total of $20.2 million in AFPM payments to Edelman from 2015 to 2020.
Previously, it’s been unclear what AFPM campaigns Edelman has worked on. However, HEATED obtained a document published by the Advertising Research Foundation showing Edelman created an award-winning AFPM campaign called “We Make Progress” from 2017 to 2018.
The campaign showcased common consumer products made using petrochemicals, implying that people would not have the luxuries they love without fossil fuels. This is one of the classic discourses of climate delay, the scientifically-defined argumentation patterns used to slow climate action.
Pictured below are some of the campaign’s most recent materials.
The aim of the “We Make Progress” campaign was to boost the AFPM’s reputation with political “elites” in Washington, D.C. Goals included “enhancing its advocacy efforts,” “better positioning its products,” and ensuring “that policymakers consider the impact on the fuels and petrochemical industries in every decision they make and vote they take.”
Edelman was successful. According to the award document, “the fuel and petrochemical industries saw significant reputational gains among the Beltway Opinion Elite.” It went on to say “The campaign drove greater familiarity, favorability, and trust in both AFPM and the fuel/petrochemical industry and positioned the brand well for future activations.”
But that’s not all Edelman’s campaign did. It also made people more wary about a future without fossil fuels. That is the greater purpose of this kind of advertising, said Robert Brulle, a visiting professor at Brown University who co-authored a recent peer-reviewed study with student Cartie Werthman on the role of public relations in climate change politics.
“A major part of the effort to obstruct climate action involves … emphasizing the benefits of continued fossil fuel use,” Brulle said. And no one helps emphasize those benefits more than Edelman, the number one PR firm for pro-fossil fuel content that ignores the deadly climate consequences.
“Edelman’s work is indistinguishable from climate denial”
Brulle and Werthman’s research shows Edelman to be the most-used PR firm of the entire fossil fuel industry. It says fossil fuels make up “a substantial percentage” of Edelman’s clients—though what percentage exactly is unclear. (Edelman did not respond to our request to clarify this point).
This makes Edelman particularly valuable to the fossil fuel industry, which spends far more on public relations than it does on conservative political think tanks. According to Brulle and Werthman’s research, the fossil fuel industry only spends about $36 million per year on political think tanks that downplay climate science, while $500 million annually is spent on public relations.
This shows the fossil fuel industry considers good PR to be a far more effective way to achieve its political goals than outright climate denial, Brulle said. “In my opinion, [public relations] is the major area of effort to obstruct climate action,” he said. “Instead of climate denial and misinformation, the vocabulary needs to shift to climate obstruction and propaganda.”
Still, Edelman has only officially banned blatant “climate denial” campaigns—showing the company either does not understand how its work for the fossil fuel industry is being used, or is choosing to ignore it.
Duncan Meisel, who is leading the Clean Creatives pledge, thinks that will soon change. “Edelman’s work for AFPM is indistinguishable from outright climate denial, and a threat to human health,” he said. “It’s an affront to Edelman’s stated values to continue working for the most extreme fossil fuel lobbying organization in America.”
Edelman did not respond to our request for comment. But in a Chicago Tribune interview, the CEO expressed his continued commitment to the oil and gas industry. “I’m proud of our clients, and I’m proud of our work for them,” he said. “I believe deeply in the oil and gas sector.”
Connor worked for Greenpeace USA from 2010-2020, which included activism related to Edelman, and he was among the co-founders of UnKoch My Campus.
Need a little extra rage?
I didn’t know where to fit this, but the Washington Post covered Brulle and Werthman’s research on the harms of oil and gas PR when it first came out a couple weeks ago.
You’ll never believe what ad popped up on the article.
I literally cannot make this shit up.
Catch of the Day:
I told you Fish would be back next issue! Here he is, as promised.
Unfortunately again, due to e-mail length limits, he’s the only pup I can feature today. But NEXT TIME we’ll have a full slate of good boys and girls. Ta-ta!
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