The PR Industry Has Been a ‘Major’ But ‘Overlooked’ Influence in Climate Politics for Decades, Says Study

By Nick Cunningham, an independent journalist covering the oil and gas industry, climate change and international politics. Originally published at DeSmog.

From coining “clean coal” to “carbon footprint,” public relations firms have been instrumental in shaping the public discourse around climate and energy policy, and as a new study underlines, their powerful efforts have flown under the radar for too long.

PR firms have played a key role in obstructing action on climate change over the past 30 years, engaging in PR campaigns on behalf of the fossil fuel industry to not only downplay the seriousness of climate change, but also to position industry-favored solutions as the preferred course of action. 

A new peer-reviewed study, published in Climatic Change on November 30 by Robert J. Brulle and Carter Werthman of Brown University, analyzes the role that PR firms have played in the climate misinformation ecosystem between 1988 and 2020. The study looked at 214 organizations across five major sectors — coal/steel/rail, oil & gas, utilities, renewable energy, and the environmental movement — and found that electric utilities hired and used PR firms the most out of any other sector analyzed, followed by oil and gas.

At the same time, those organizations used a very small number of big names in the PR world, including Edelman, Glover Park Group, Cerrell, and Ogilvy. Of more than 600 PR firms analyzed, the top 25 accounted for nearly a third of the engagement on climate work with companies and nonprofits.  

“The fossil fuel industry’s obstruction of climate action goes beyond misinformation and climate denial. A major part of the effort to obstruct climate action involves enhancing the positive public reputation for the fossil fuel companies and emphasizing the benefits of continued fossil fuel use,” said Robert Brulle, visiting professor at Brown University and co-author on the article. “From the severity of climate impacts to policies to address the problem, PR firms are a big part of the corporate propaganda machinery that guides the way Americans think about the issue.”

The authors wrote that while much has been written about the role of right-wing think tanks, dark money, and corporate power in misleading the public on climate change, very little is understood about how PR firms fit into the story. They are often viewed as passive players in climate obfuscation, rather than active agents, which ignores the influential role they play in “conceptualization, design, and execution of communications and political campaigns,” the study said. PR firms intentionally try to remain invisible. 

The study aims to shine a light on some of the most prominent companies, the role of which the authors say is “on par with conservative think tanks or environmental groups” in terms of influence over public climate discussions. The PR firms “remain unexamined, and not held to account for their activities.”

“This study adds a new cast of characters to our understanding of the key actors in climate change politics,” the study states. “Along with ExxonMobil, Koch Enterprises, Greenpeace, the Heartland Institute, and the Competitive Enterprise Institute, we need to add in PR firms such as Edelman, Glover Park, Cerrell, and Ogilvy.” 

Edelman stood out with the most PR “engagements,” and also accounted for most of the PR work from the oil and gas industry. The researchers found that Edelman was the only PR firm that worked across all five sectors identified in the study. It is relatively rare for PR companies to do work for both the oil industry and an environmental group, for example. Edelman could not be reached for comment in time for publication.

While most sectors that encompass the fossil fuel industry and its affiliates long-ago eschewed outright climate denial as an overarching strategy to derail climate action, corporate entities have deployed a range of other strategies to slow or block threatening policies. The most common PR tactic is “corporate image promotion,” or greenwashing, while explicit climate denial itself was rarely used, according to the analysis. 

This study finds that PR firms are responsible for phrases that have become commonplace, such as “clean coal,” “renewable natural gas,” “coal country,” and “carbon footprint.” These concepts have become “taken-for-granted discourse regarding climate change, and subsequently shaped the public debate about the issue,” the authors note.

Once such phrases catch on, they become a conventional way of framing the topic. For instance, U.S. Presidents from Barack Obama to Donald Trump have all used the phrase “clean coal” when discussing their approaches to energy policy.

The tactics used by PR firms include paid media campaigns, earned media placements, so-called grassroots events (or astroturfing), and social media campaigns. DeSmog and others in climate journalism have long been working to expose how corporate interests employ these PR industry techniques to manipulate public opinion on climate and energy, from Edelman’s 2014 work on behalf of a TransCanada tar sands pipeline to FTI Consulting’s recent efforts to sell hydrogen and natural gas as climate solutions.

In particular, the use of PR by the oil and gas industry spiked a few times over the last three decades, the study found, most notably in 1989 and 1996. Those years coincide with two notable events: the Congressional testimony of climate scientist James Hansen in 1989 about the threat of climate change and the mid- to late-1990s push for the Kyoto Protocol, an international agreement aimed at curbing greenhouse gas emissions. However, the authors cautioned that they cannot empirically draw a causal link between those events and the use of PR on climate change. 

Brulle and Werthman noted that the study is not comprehensive; they only looked at national PR campaigns, not state or local engagement on climate and energy. The research also does not include in-house PR created by companies themselves, only those done by external PR firms. And, importantly, many relationships between corporate entities and PR firms are private and not publicly disclosed, so this study likely underestimates the role of the PR industry.

The advocacy group Clean Creatives, launched last year, has been pushing for the PR and advertising industries to break ties with fossil fuel companies. Duncan Meisel, director of Clean Creatives, welcomed this study’s efforts to highlight those ties.

“Agencies like Edelman, Ogilvy, and WeberShandwick named in this report need to recognize that work for fossil fuel companies is doing significant damage to their reputation and legacy. The hard truth is that advertising and public relations agencies are essential to the fossil fuel industry’s propaganda machine, and work for fossil clients has stopped the world from adequately responding to the climate emergency,” Meisel told DeSmog in an email. “The best time to stop working for fossil fuel clients was 20 years ago, when we had much more time to stop the climate emergency, the second best time is now.”

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About Lambert Strether

Readers, I have had a correspondent characterize my views as realistic cynical. Let me briefly explain them. I believe in universal programs that provide concrete material benefits, especially to the working class. Medicare for All is the prime example, but tuition-free college and a Post Office Bank also fall under this heading. So do a Jobs Guarantee and a Debt Jubilee. Clearly, neither liberal Democrats nor conservative Republicans can deliver on such programs, because the two are different flavors of neoliberalism (“Because markets”). I don’t much care about the “ism” that delivers the benefits, although whichever one does have to put common humanity first, as opposed to markets. Could be a second FDR saving capitalism, democratic socialism leashing and collaring it, or communism razing it. I don’t much care, as long as the benefits are delivered. To me, the key issue — and this is why Medicare for All is always first with me — is the tens of thousands of excess “deaths from despair,” as described by the Case-Deaton study, and other recent studies. That enormous body count makes Medicare for All, at the very least, a moral and strategic imperative. And that level of suffering and organic damage makes the concerns of identity politics — even the worthy fight to help the refugees Bush, Obama, and Clinton’s wars created — bright shiny objects by comparison. Hence my frustration with the news flow — currently in my view the swirling intersection of two, separate Shock Doctrine campaigns, one by the Administration, and the other by out-of-power liberals and their allies in the State and in the press — a news flow that constantly forces me to focus on matters that I regard as of secondary importance to the excess deaths. What kind of political economy is it that halts or even reverses the increases in life expectancy that civilized societies have achieved? I am also very hopeful that the continuing destruction of both party establishments will open the space for voices supporting programs similar to those I have listed; let’s call such voices “the left.” Volatility creates opportunity, especially if the Democrat establishment, which puts markets first and opposes all such programs, isn’t allowed to get back into the saddle. Eyes on the prize! I love the tactical level, and secretly love even the horse race, since I’ve been blogging about it daily for fourteen years, but everything I write has this perspective at the back of it.


  1. Sailor Bud

    Environment talk needs to be about all of it, not just climate change. Not that these weasels will care, but climate change is very obviously easy for them to ignore. What isn’t?

    Where did litter go as a viable thing to hammer them with? I grew up in the 1970s, and I remember the ‘give a hoot’ stuff being effective on my young mind. I suspect it was so effective that they disappeared it by the 1980s as an issue. Unlike climate change, the capitalists can’t deny the ubiquitous trash everywhere once people point it out. Unlike climate change, the capitalists also can’t deny inventing it. They take credit for the invention of everything else. Why not the trash on the ground?

    Where I live, they privatized garbage removal. Because of this, something you’ll never see in any news story anywhere, left or right: Dumping. People can’t afford to pay the garbage baron, so they leave full bags of trash in the middle of the night alongside the river front and elsewhere. That’s environment.

    This is too:

    Where I live, there are three chimneys pumping some kind of smoke into the air to the south of me, nonstop. Completely dystopian. How did that become acceptable? How can someone look at it and think anything but “they either paid to get around some law or paid to get rid of the law about this”?

    Disappearing the issue: they’re good at this. I also remember the death penalty being bigger once. Then, once every conservative decided to tell everyone they’re “libertarian” and hate government, the issue curiously went away, didn’t it?

    1. Even keel

      I’m with you Sailor. Climate change as an umbrella sucked away all enthusiasm and personal investment in environmentalism.

      Remember think global act local? Nobody does that anymore. We just sit around waiting for tip down technical/scientific fixes to the climate change problem. Nobody does anything themselves.

      Partly that’s “rational” — voluntary reduction in energy use confers a competitive disadvantage. Obviously, we need more irrational.

      Reason from irrational commitments to the your good! Clean air is good. Community is good. Trees are good. Walking and talking and human scale interaction is good. Clean water is good.

      Take action to support these things. I remember back in the early 2000s, the talk was: yes do these things, supporting these goals helps reduce climate change, which is the real issue. (I.e.: these ends in themselves serve a greater good). Then, slowly, these ends were demoted to merely Instrumental value, and then we’re washed away.

      I ran for state rep one time in 2016 or so, thinking I would find natural support in environmentalists. But the organized environmental groups were single issue advocates: global warming policies at the state level (I believe a carbon tax on fuels is the technical description, but I’m not sure), or get out! While I wanted to talk about hikes, and forests, and local sized communities, building code and zoning code changes.

  2. Jackiebass63

    You call it PR but I call it propaganda. People are constantly being bombarded by propaganda and it makes it difficult for Joe Six Pack to know what I’d fact and what is fiction. The propaganda is sometimes direct but often it is disguised as something unrelated. All age groups are targeted. Propaganda isn’t something new but has existed for decades. That is why our government and political system has become dysfunctional. Unfortunately all levels of government suffer from the disease. You can probably place blame on our having a 2 party system that controls everything.

    1. Christopher Horne

      I have been arguing this point for years. Advertising and PR is the venom
      by which the minds of our citizenry is poisoned. Starting with Nixon, who
      hired advertisers from 7UP to do his campaign advertising. “Morning In
      America”, anyone? It is not for nothing that network TV anchors are paid
      40 million a year to read 22 minutes of news from a teleprompter.
      Their job is to hold your attention a few minutes until the next ad comes on.
      You are the product the networks sell- so many ‘eyeballs’ per ad.
      Let us not forget that America (under Woodrow Wilson) invented propaganda to get us into WWI. Any society offers its citizens three choices- more, better, different (and various combinations thereof.
      America’s preferred choice, from the standpoint of Commerce, has since
      the 1950’s, been More. Better is expensive from the standpoint of
      product or political development. Different means minor
      variations (think cell phones). I am a musician, and Fender et all sell
      their classic brands such as Stratocaster with tiny tweaks to color or pickup
      choice. In time, consumer preferences become acquired habits, which is
      why ads pitch to the young, particularly those who have not acquired
      houses or children yet. As to the ‘two party system’, the Democrats have
      worn out their game of dividing Americans into hyphenated groups,
      such as African-American, Latino-American, etc. and the People see it.
      Divide and conquer isn’t cutting it anymore for them.
      The Republicans have no agenda other than Power, as is well-known..
      I will leave to others the tedious task of how Fascism is enacted.
      Suffice it to say that what Mussolini invented is very little amended to
      the present day. The goal is to learn to fear a knock on your door at 2AM.

  3. vlade

    There’s no difference between PR and propaganda, really. And IMO, one of the main issues is that only the bad guys seems to realise that a well run propaganda is crucial to any cause.

    1. Mike Elwin

      Well, yes, there is a difference between PR and propaganda, but it can be a fine line, just like lawyering, coaching, and other expert advising. And First Amendment rights.

  4. PlutoniumKun

    PR companies have been very active in this for many decades. Burson Marstaller always had a reputation as one of the most ruthless and, shall we say, borderline ethical PR companies on environmental issues.

    They are particularly good at injecting what seems to be ‘common sense’ views into the narrative. I’ve heard people on the left making statements that are straight out of fossil fuel PR documents without apparently realising it. I hear it a lot when discussing renewables, especially wind energy. The smarter PR companies rely on a cascade of messengers, from respectable public faces, tame academics and supposedly neutral talking heads, along with astroturf ‘green’ or ‘labor’ groups. One message they’ve been very successful at implanting is that climate change is an individual responsibility, and anyone who buys a car, buys a flight ticket, etc., can’t complain about it and is somehow equally as guilty as the coal and oil companies. The other one is the notion that its all overpopulation thats the insurmountable problem (some simple maths can show this not to be the case).

  5. Dwight

    They sold war too, bad in itself and bad for climate. Hill & Knowlton (Kuwaiti incubator babies) and Ruder Finn (anti-Serb propaganda) were the most prominent.

  6. orlbucfan

    Propaganda/PR is the effective misuse of psycholinguistics. The same formulas have been effective since the dawn of written human history. It’s a sad state of affairs.

  7. Carolinian

    “Clean Creatives.” Wonder how many cigarettes Mad Men’s Don Draper sold back in the imaginary day. Then there was the advertising for ever more power and polluting Detroit land yachts, Hollywood’s promotion of luxury lifestyles. Our consumer paradise floats on constant promotion of consumption therefore no need to put it all on the oil companies. This has been going on a long time and the outright deception model very much prefigured by the tobacco companies.

  8. Arizona Slim

    My father was a coal industry researcher during the 1950s and 1960s. What he thought of clean coal cannot be repeated on this family blog.

  9. FluffytheObeseCat

    “Merchants of Doubt”, Oreskes & Conway, 2010. My recollection is they focused on the think tank level ultra-right elites who drove and funded anti-AGW PR campaigns. However, advertising and PR professionals got some mention. They documented how key individuals in the midcentury smoking denial campaigns switched to funding and promoting anti-global warming falsehoods in the 90s and 00s.

    As far as I know, none of these propaganda mavens has put effort into refuting Oreskes findings; they just route around them in order to get followers to dismiss her work. (Assertions that she’s a socialist and dogwhistles targeting ‘intellectual Jews’ figure prominently in their approaches.) I suspect FUD and general persiflage dominate their tactics because her findings are difficult to refute. There’s too much readily available data in support of them.

    Our most powerful BS artistes commonly rely on the silence or laziness of those in “opposing” elite societal factions in order to succeed. In the early 2000s professionals of her stripe, at her level, quite often mimicked Obama, and pretended to breeze past detractors as though didn’t exist. I think the election of Trump distressed them so much in part because it torpedoed this weak tactic.

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