After last month’s United Nations-sponsored environmental conference in Glasgow, the public relations giant Edelman praised the participants for reaching “a new level of international consensus that climate change is an existential threat to humanity.”
In a statement posted on its website, Edelman also called for “more scrutiny on corporate climate lobbying efforts” and argued that many of the pledges that resulted from the conference “fall far short of what is necessary to avert global climate disaster.”
Coming from a company that has worked with Exxon Mobil, Shell and trade groups that lobby for the fossil fuel industry, the pro-environment stance rang hollow to some people inside and outside the company.
Some of the criticism leveled at Edelman came in the form of a petition from Clean Creatives, an initiative led by the environmental activist Jamie Henn that takes aim at public relations companies and advertising agencies that work with oil and gas corporations. The petition was circulated at the time of the conference, known as COP26, and was signed by more than 100 people, including activists, academics, authors, actors, diplomats and filmmakers.
“Several private conversations with Edelman to ask them to drop these clients have led nowhere,” the petition said. “Given the stakes, we are now going public with our demand to Edelman: Drop Exxon Mobil and all other fossil-fuel clients.”
Public relations companies are nothing if not image conscious, and the petition prompted the company to schedule a videoconference for its employees on Nov. 15 to address the issue.
Richard Edelman, the chief executive and the son of the company’s founder, led the meeting, which was attended by thousands of employees. On the call, he described climate change as the greatest threat facing humanity and said that business leaders should take the lead in trying to solve it, according to three employees who described the meeting on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal conversations. He also said Edelman had started a 60-day review of the companies it represents to make sure they are environmentally responsible, according to the people.
One employee posed a question: Would Edelman potentially walk away from its fossil fuel clients? According to the three employees, Mr. Edelman’s answer 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 toward a future with net-zero greenhouse gas emissions.
Mr. Edelman and other company leaders did not address more than 50 questions about Edelman’s oil and gas work submitted by employees in a chat room accompanying the video meeting. Many of those questions expressed skepticism about Edelman’s work for fossil fuel companies while championing environmental initiatives.
As global warming takes a worsening toll 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 ventures. At the same time, 45 banks, insurers and asset managers have pledged to use the $130 trillion they control to hit net-zero emissions targets in their investments by 2050, a goal that critics have said doesn’t go far enough because the financial institutions continue to invest in fossil fuel companies.
A number of public relations companies and advertising agencies have cut ties with the oil and gas industry in recent years, wary of burnishing the images of companies that have played a role in damaging the environment. Edelman’s strategy is less clear-cut. It says on its website that it thinks “very carefully about which businesses we work for.”
The 69-year-old company has a longstanding relationship with fossil fuels. It began working with Shell, Europe’s largest oil company, more than 15 years ago. This fall, as Edelman prepared to move its headquarters out of the Aon Center in Chicago, Mr. Edelman wrote a blog post that described how his father had loved the location: “He was so proud that his company was in the same building as giant Standard Oil of Indiana.”
In a statement to The New York Times, Edelman said that it was “unable to comment on specific client engagements due to confidentiality commitments with all of our clients,” adding that it would not work with climate change deniers, a policy the company established in 2015.
Companies in the business of shaping public opinion are likely to side with oil and gas companies for as long as they can keep taking their money, which can be significant, said Christine Arena, who resigned as an executive vice president of Edelman’s corporate responsibility division in 2015 along with five colleagues who had expressed concerns about the company’s work for fossil fuel clients.
“The agency was more weighted toward fossil fuel clients and, therefore, the interests of those clients, and that will probably continue as long as fossil fuel marketers don’t face the types of restrictions that tobacco or pharmaceutical companies face,” said Ms. Arena, who now runs a production company, Generous Films.
She said that 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 trade organizations for fossil fuel corporations are saying they believe climate change is a hoax,” Ms. Arena said.
Edelman has long had unpopular clients. In 2019, after objections from its own employees, Edelman decided to stop working with GEO Group, a private prisons business that had government contracts with the Trump administration to run immigrant detention centers. For decades, Edelman helped promote cigarettes and only stopped in 1997, after Mr. Edelman was urged to drop British American Tobacco as a client.
In 2019, the Massachusetts attorney general filed a lawsuit against Exxon Mobil accusing it of deceiving investors about the dangers of climate change. In a section on Exxon Mobil’s efforts to hide what it knew about the fossil fuel industry’s role in the problem, the lawsuit notes that Edelman was among the public relations companies hired by the oil and gas giant, which the attorney general accused of running “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 lobbyist group, making it the trade body’s second-highest paid independent contractor, according to the group’s tax filings.
Casey Norton, a spokesman for Exxon, declined to comment on its dealings with public relations companies 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, an assistant dean at the college of media and communication at Texas Tech University, said that many public relations companies remain eager to work with all kinds of clients, even if it means criticism.
“There are still agencies that work with casinos and tobacco companies — those are the choices made through capitalism,” she said. “Edelman has multiple choices. They can choose to take a stand, they might go more middle of the road, or they might decide not to change at all.”