WBEZ Interview: PR firm Edelman faces PR scandal

After the interview Tuesday on WBEZ Chicago (below), Edelman shifted slightly yesterday and published a “Position on Climate Change”, and while leaving lots of wiggle room, is being more declarative in its statements.  This may be the first such position by a major PR agency against climate denial.

The Guardian published this shift in stance today with the headline “Edelman formally declares it will not accept climate denial campaigns”

We still want to know how they reconcile belief in the urgency of climate change and promoting fossil fuel exploitation for American Petroleum Institute (Vote4Energy, Energy Citizens) or working for the American Legislative Exchange Council, whose recent meeting in Dallas was loaded with climate denier presentations from Heartland and CFACT along with model bills aimed at undermining EPA greenhouse gas regulations.  MotherBoard at VICE dug in a little deeper on where the twain meet.

To be continued…

WBEZ Afternoon Shift August 5, 2014 (rough transcript)

Niala Boodhoo, host: You’re listening to the Afternoon Shift. I’m Niala Boodhoo. The world’s most powerful public relations firms stake their business on having the ability to influence people and policy, right? Well, now it seems several top PR firms are taking a stand against climate change denial. Ten of the world’s largest public relations firms, such as Weber-Shandwick and WPP – that’s the parent company of Burson-Marsteller and Ogilvy Public Relations – say they will no longer do business with entities that reject the existence of climate change. This is all because of a survey from the Climate Investigations Center that was done with the UK’s Guardian newspaper. It tried to find out where the top PR houses stood on representing those who reject the science of climate change. Notably not on that list was Chicago-based Edelman Public Relations Firm. Joining me to talk about why is Edelman’s Ben Boyd and Kert Davies, the executive director of the Climate Investigations Center. Gentlemen, welcome to the afternoon shift.

Kert Davies, CIC: Thanks for having me.

Ben Boyd, Edelman PR: Thanks so much.

NB: Kert, let’s start with you. What’s the Climate Investigations Center and why did you do this survey?

KD: The Climate Investigations Center is a relatively new organziation building on the work I did at Greenpeace for thirteen years, looking into the funding of climate science denial and organizations like the Heartland Institute there in Chicago, and Exxon’s involvement in this, the Koch brother’s involvement. This organization’s dedicated to researching and uncovering where the climate debate – where the rubber meets the road, so to speak. So we’re digging into a variety of different things. People can find out more at ClimateInvestigations.org.

NB: How many firms did you send this survey to, Kert?

KD: We sent it to the top 25 firms operating in the US based on their revenue and, uh, it’s a lot of revenue.

NB: And how many firms responded?

KD: We only got responses from a few firms directly, and then some punted to their parent organizations, their parent companies – that’s WPP. So, in total, we got direct responses from six [firms] and then we got indirect responses from another few. It’s a mixed bag, but we, you know – the response we accidentally got from Edelman, straight up, was “there are only wrong answers for this guy.” Their CEO at the time, who has now left the company, accidentally emailed me. So, I think a lot of companies probably felt the same way – we don’t need to answer these questions. And we think it was a pretty simple question: “do you acknowledge the threat of climate change?”

NB: Well, Ben, let’s ask him – uh, let’s ask you to respond to that. Do you want to answer that question? If you –

BB: I think, look, it’s really simple. If I were Kert, I’d feel exactly the same way. I mean, the fact of the matter is that Edelman fully recognizes the reality of and the science behind climate change. And we do not accept client assignments that aim to deny climate change. I think, unfortunately – and there’s no excuse other than just poor communication, which is probably ironic for a communications firm – but, you know, junior staff handled the completion of the questionnaire. It was not Mark Hass. And, again, that email was completely unacceptable and inappropriate. So, you know, I would begin by first clarifying that that is our position and I would also offer Kert and the CIC an apology for what was an inaccurate or, rather, incomplete answer to what I agree with him to be four very simple questions. And I would also state unequivocally Edelman’s desire to work with him and the CIC in terms of further investigation and engagement with our industry, as outlined in his larger post of today.

NB: Ben, you know, you said that you don’t accept client assignments that aim to, as you said, obstruct or dilute regulation designed to address climate change. How does that square with your representation of say, like, the American Petroleum Institute. That’s one of your clients, right?

BB: Yeah, I think that the reality is, you know, this is – we want to paint a lot of these debates as black and white, right? So if you look at the notion of ethanol and greenhouse gas emissions and the points of view around ethanol as an acceptable alternative, the fact of the matter is that there are varying opinions. So, again, we do not work for deniers, but we recognize that there is great nuance and grey in this conversation. And I think what we have espoused in terms of our own corporate view is the need for business and government to work together as it relates to these large societal, complex issues and topics. But, again, we fully accept and believe the science behind climate change and we do not work for clients who deny that.

NB: Kert –

KD: Well, one of your clients is the American Legislative Exchange Council, which just held its meeting in Dallas. And I don’t know if Edelman’s still working for them, but were in 2012 when they ran into some protests from outside groups. And ALEC just hosted this meeting with the Heartland Institute, with this other group called CFACT – hardcore climate deniers who were instructing legislators on how to attack the EPA, how to question the science. I don’t know that you do that work with them –

NB: Ben, do you still work with them?

BB: I’d have to look at our client roster with, you know, thousands of clients on a varying school. I’d be happy to look at that, Kert, and connect back with you on that in terms of active engagement with them.

NB: Ben, to Kert’s point, do you – I mean, now that you – I say, you don’t do that, have you, obviously, you’re such a large firm, I can’t even imagine how many clients you have. Do you have a process of going through and determining whether or not they’re people you’ll work with or won’t work with them in terms of climate change?

BB: I think we certainly have a policy, which is available on our website. It’s pretty black and white. I think that policy is shared clearly internally and our client leaders are expected to uphold the values that we espouse as a firm and that we believe as a business, as the right and ethical way to operate. I cannot guarantee to you guys or anyone else that in a firm of 6,000 I won’t have ethical lapses. What I can guarantee you is that when ethical lapses – when and if those lapses happen – and those choices, yaknow, have consequences and we move on those. But we do not consciously, especially from a management perspective, accept revenue from those who deny the science behind climate change.

NB: Kert, let me ask you one last question. Which is – Ben was talking about the nuances of this. Did you hear other firms say that as well? What’s your position on this?

KD: You know, there was a broad range of responses to our survey – very interesting stuff. Some firms were being pushed by their clients. One firm engaged with IBM who said, “well, what’s your carbon footprint?” to the ad firm and they didn’t have one – they had to develop one to take the contract. Edelman has a whole carbon accounting program I didn’t even know about because it’s in the appendix to their citizenship report. They’re doing their own carbon footprint and have targets on airline miles reduction. That’s remarkable, but, as you said earlier, it barely squares with a multi-million dollar contract to push oil, push the Keystone pipeline, without mentioning potential carbon impacts. It’s very easy in the ad industry to avoid subjects and to stress the positives –

NB: well, but, Kert, to my question about – did you find that PR firms or other firms you talked to, are they saying “no” to these campaigns or are they saying no to firms that don’t believe in climate change? What are other firms telling you?

KD: Some committed – we didn’t really ask that question. The Guardian asked that question and they got commitments that they were not working with climate deniers. And that is a major step forward – it’s a question that, frankly, has never been put to this industry before. The reason we did this survey was because pretty much every other sector has been questioned about climate change. You take banking, or insurance, or, yaknow, the oil industry, obviously – all of them, over the decades, have been questioned, “do you believe in this, do you think it’s a major push?” Because we have to have the corporate community working alongside governments to solve this problem, and the PR industry’s just never been asked. So I think it’s a work in progress, getting the PR industry to wake up to the fact that they are important. One commentator in an article said, this is probably the biggest PR problem in the world, getting people to understand climate change. It’s a very hard thing to get done. We need the help of the PR professionals to do that.

NB: And, Kert, now that Ben – uh, Ben, now that Kert has posed the question to you, what’s your response to how you think PR firms – what responsibility do you think public relations firms and Edelman has to this whole issue of climate change and climate change deniers?

BB: Yeah, not a great question. Unequivocally, I think we have stated that business has to play a role in solving these complex world problems. I don’t think that Edelman or the PR industry is an exception to that, uh, assumption. I think the work that we do around the trust barometer looks and points to the expectations of peoples around the world in 27 countries where we survey for business to be a responsible good actor with, actually, greater trust in business to lead change. So, again, we do not work with those who deny the science. I think we continue to scrub, on a daily basis, our client roster and look at the behaviors of our clients – even outside the assignments that we have. And I think our commitment, as he outlined in terms of our own carbon footprint and presence, is something that we proactively began. Our work with Unilever, again, is a demonstration of a partnership in which we look at how to help raise larger conversations in the public sphere that are important around the topics of sustainability and corporate behavior. That has been, you know, a bold proclamation of our CEO in terms of what is necessary for business to be successful in the long term. And, again, we are not in any way immune from that belief.

NB: Well, thank you so much both of you for joining me. That’s Ben Boyd, the global chair of corporate practices for Edelman – based, of course, here in Chicago – and Kert Davies, the executive director of the Climate Investigations Center. Thank you.

KD: Thank you.

BB: Thanks very much.

Posted by Kert Davies