PR Giant Edelman Cuts Ties With Oil Industry

(3BL Media/Justmeans) - This, I believe, is how societal change occurs. Even big changes happen a little bit at a time, unseen, below the surface, until suddenly, seemingly out of nowhere, a big movement makes news.

The biggest influencers in our society are business, government, and the media. The movement towards increased transparency, facilitated by the media and the tremendous growth of the Internet, has forced business and government to become more responsive to prevailing opinion.

Sitting at the intersection of all these factors are the public relations firms. Founded after the second world war by Edwin Bernays, the nephew of Sigmund Freud, the fledgling science of PR was based on the discovery that men and women, when making  decisions, are generally influenced more by “unconscious fears and desires” than they are by facts. The exploitation of this discovery and the subsequent growth of the advertising industry has been a key driver of the American economy as consumers were led down a road that took them from buying what they need to buying what they want.

With the revelation of mankind’s role in destabilizing the Earth’s climate system surfacing, PR firms often found themselves on both sides of the issue, helping their clients promote whatever perspective was in their self-interest. But with the increasing level of transparency required of companies today, executives are finding themselves held accountable for the impact of not only their own actions, but those of their suppliers and their clients.

Last year, a large number of PR firms came forward, in response to surveys administered by public interest groups, with a pledge to stop representing groups that are actively engaged in the denial of scientific consensus that clearly states that climate change is directly linked to the combustion of  fossil fuels. Noticeably absent from that list was Edelman, the world’s largest PR firm, who counted among its clients a number of major oil companies and their representatives, including the American Petroleum Institute (API). Despite the fact that Edelman had supported numerous sustainability initiatives including publishing joint papers with the Earth Institute, they maintained that they evaluated clients on a case-by-case basis.

That included representation of TransCanada to sell the Keystone XL pipeline to the American public. Once Edelman's part in the strategy was brought to light, TransCanada severed the relationship with them. Then, after a major article in The Guardian on the subject, Edelman came out with a statement that they would no longer represent climate deniers.

Now, amidst  the movement for divestment from fossil fuel companies, Edelman has just announced that that are terminating their relationship with API. The relationship had been a lucrative one, with billings totaling some $327 million over the past decade. Circumstances behind the split were not immediately clear, though it appears that the Edelman subsidiary that has handled the account, Blue Advertising (who also handles the American Wind Energy Association) will split off from Edelman and continue to handle the account. This move is consistent with statements that Edelman chief Richard Edelman has made in the past, such as “There is a significant failure of communications regarding the environment.”

Ideology aside, there are also practical reasons for the move. More and more large clients, such as Walmart and Unilever, are scrutinizing all their suppliers to ensure that they are in alignment with their own sustainability principles.

Little by little, actions become visible. What was once acceptable is longer so. This is how the world changes.

Image credit: Blue Advertising