The most basic objectives of public relations (PR) agencies are rather straightforward. They make an impact on the public perception of their clients and increase profits for shareholders. PR agencies work for companies in many sectors and represent these companies on several issues. Some issues resonate well with international norms and expectations, others less so. When PR agencies are perceived to be working against a global good, they are often castigated by pressure groups and concerned citizens.
These days, environmental, social and governance (ESG) criteria have become important for most businesses and PR agencies are no exception. If businesses use child labor, burn forests or bribe politicians, many suppliers, buyers, investors and other stakeholders stop engaging with them. This focus on ESG has profound implications for PR agencies. Many expect them to stop taking on clients with poor ESG records. For instance, some demand that PR agencies should stop taking on fossil fuel companies such as Chevron or Shell as clients.
Such an argument raises key questions. As businesses, should PR agencies shut off a key source of revenue? What if they go bust? Are PR job losses desirable? Many businesses cause environmental damage. Should PR agencies also not accept mining companies and automobile manufacturers as clients? Should the burden of responsibility of accepting or not accepting clients rest on individual PR agencies?
Public Pressure on Public Relations
The outcry against PR agencies acting for fossil fuel companies has a context. Many believe that these agencies have downplayed scientific data revealing the scale of climate change to help the cause of their clients. Recently, a global coalition of over 450 climate scientists signed a letter calling on PR agencies and advertising firms to end relations with fossil fuel companies. These scientists want them to get behind legislation for climate change mitigation.
In 2021, a study highlighted hundreds of elaborate campaigns purportedly designed by PR agencies to hinder climate action. Their clients include Shell, Chevron and other fossil fuel entities. Around the same time, the Clean Creatives collective published an open letter calling on Edelman, the world’s largest PR agency, to end the ‘greenwashing’ of fossil fuel clients.
Edelman’s response to the climate emergency emphasized working with partners to accelerate climate action, develop best practices, and hold clients as well as itself accountable for mitigating climate change. The agency also promised many other changes but stopped short of dropping its energy clients.
The Pickle Over Climate Change
To casual observers, these actions by Edelman might be indicative of an industry that uncompromisingly prioritizes profit above ethical standards. Despite the unquestionably sales-driven nature of the business, such a conclusion is too simplistic and a bit unfair. Like other sectors, PR has professional bodies that set ethical standards for the industry. Ethical competence is a prerequisite for membership. Of these, the International Public Relations Association’s (IPRA) code of conduct is one of the most comprehensive. Among its many provisions, the code states that practitioners must not intentionally disseminate false or misleading information.
Last November’s United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) inspired IPRA to form a chapter to heighten professional knowledge of climate-related issues. In doing so, the organization seeks to enable members “to play a valuable part in furthering communications aspects of climate change.” Neither IPRA nor this specific chapter urge PR professionals to cease business with fossil fuel clients, making it unlikely that Clean Creatives and climate change scientists will stop criticizing them.
PR agencies are in a bind. When they work with fossil fuel producers, they have to abide by a code of conduct that might limit what they can do for their clients. The other option for PR agencies is to drop these clients altogether.
Dropping fossil fuel companies might not be an entirely good idea though. If Shell sets its target of becoming a net-zero energy business by 2050, PR agencies could help. From developing communications strategies to running press offices, these agencies can help achieve this goal. They can also help in a crisis. Crisis communications helped citizens after an oil spill off the coast of Peru.
Ethics Matter and Might Be Good Business
Any PR professional worth their salt knows that emphasizing the industry’s ethical charters and practices alone is unlikely to cut it with climate activists. For them, such is the severity of the climate emergency that PR agencies should just cease working with fossil fuel companies. Finding a way forward that will satisfy all sides, and suitably addresses climate change communication, remains challenging.
For starters, some consultants may need to get better at managing some of their clients’ expectations. PR agencies might consider the value of emphasizing how they don’t support harmful aspects of oil and gas production. It goes without saying that PR agencies do promote oil and gas producers in Nigeria. However, they do not represent illegal oil refineries on the continent, which cause much pollution and drain state coffers. The risk of expulsion from trade associations and the fall of a leading firm like Bell Pottinger are very real for PR agencies. These businesses might upset their critics but they play by their own rules and do not cross thin lines in the sand.
Many PR agencies might also find inspiration from ESG business successes. In the 1990s, the UK’s Co-Operative Bank ran a powerful advertisement, promising not to invest their “customers’ money in countries with oppressive regimes.” This advertisement was part of a series that highlighted the bank’s commitment to ethical finance. The bank’s compelling ads had hard hitting and often harrowing content about landmines, fossil fuels and more. In 2021, the Co-Operative Bank was named the best high street bank for ESG. Such sort of clients might represent the future of PR agencies.
Fossil Fuels Are Legal and Essential, So Are Their PR Needs
It is unlikely that PR agencies could run advertisements like the Co-Operative Bank for all their clients. Such campaigns would certainly not work for oil and gas producers. Giving them up as clients might not be the right business move. In fact, if PR agencies did what the likes of Clean Creatives say and jettisoned these clients, climate change would still go on.
The Russia-Ukraine conflict provides a timely reminder that fossil fuels still power the global economy. As essential players in the global economy, oil and gas producers need strategic communications support. They are not Colombian cartels operating in the shadow economy. If nothing else, these companies have to maintain crisis communications preparedness for public interest reasons. What happens if there is an oil spill? How does an oil company communicate about such a spill to the public? As long as we depend on oil for cars and on gas for power, PR agencies have a role to play for bona fide legal businesses.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.