Five years ago, Christine Arena, then an executive vice president at the elite PR firm Edelman, left her job because she felt she could no longer support the agency’s work with fossil fuel companies and industry front groups. Five of her colleagues did the same thing. Now a new campaign called Clean Creatives is encouraging other creatives in advertising and public relations to take a stand on climate change and pressure their employers to do the same.
“I resigned because it became clear that my agency role and professional goals as a climate communicator were incongruous with the agency’s business priorities,” says Arena, whose current company, Generous Films, is supporting the new campaign. “You cannot credibly sell sustainability and trust to clients, let alone be a ‘force for good in the world,’ while helping fossil fuel front groups and oil companies advance their objective of slowing climate action.” According to a report in 2019 from Brown University’s Climate Development Lab, Edelman continued to represent industry groups such as the American Petroleum Institute, along with corporations such as Chevron and Shell (the company did not respond to a request for comment).
Fossil Free Media, a nonprofit media lab, is leading the campaign. “We’re facing this huge problem on the other side, whereas much as we might try and change the public narrative around fossil fuels, there’s tens of millions of dollars being spent on the other side to convince people that oil companies are part of the solution, or that they’ve changed when they really haven’t,” says founder Jamie Henn, who previously worked at the climate nonprofit 350.org.
Public relations and ad agencies have a long history with the fossil fuel industry, developing together some techniques for deflecting criticism that were later copied by Big Tobacco. (Amy Westervelt’s podcast, Drilled, digs into the fascinating details in a season called the “Mad Men of Climate Denial.”) The connections still exist, even as many agencies claim a commitment to sustainability. But this may also be the moment that things change. After author and activist Bill McKibben reached out to an agency called Porter Novelli—which had been running a social media campaign to promote the polluting natural gas industry—the agency eventually responded that it had decided to end its relationship with the client, the American Public Gas Association.
Clean Creatives hopes to push many more agencies to follow, in the same way that groups such as 350.org pushed banks to stop funding coal and Arctic drilling. Key to the new campaign are the creative directors, designers, and other individuals working at the agencies. “They are much more effective messengers to their firms than a bunch of radical climate activists are,” says Henn. They have sway over their employers. “Creatives are the people that are the real value for these firms,” he says. “The account executives making the deals maybe get the money and the credit, but these firms only function because they have their top creators, their top directors, their top designers. So if those people start to speak out, it could have a really big impact.” Individuals working in an agency can pledge not to work on fossil clients.
Other businesses can also pressure their own PR agencies, he says. “There are thousands of businesses out there who care about sustainability and put out sustainability reports and probably ask really detailed questions for their suppliers about how they make their products, but don’t ask the same questions of their PR companies,” he says. Clients can push for transparency: Most PR agencies that work with fossil companies aren’t advertising that fact. Clients can also threaten to leave. “If Unilever said tomorrow that they only wanted to work with companies that didn’t work with fossil fuels, it would transform the industry overnight. They spend something like $2 billion a year on advertising—that’s way more than Exxon or Chevron.” (Unilever actually spends more than $8 billion a year on marketing.)
Political and legal pressure can also push agencies to change. “In the U.K., BP was forced to drop an advertising campaign they were doing, because an NGO called Client Earth filed a legal complaint saying that it was false advertising,” says Henn. “BP was trying to pretend that they were a renewable energy company when they really weren’t.” In Massachusetts, attorney general Maura Healey recently filed a lawsuit alleging that ExxonMobil’s greenwashing was misleading consumers and investors; Henn says that agencies should realize that there’s a risk that their emails will be subpoenaed as similar lawsuits continue.
Still, it’s a challenge to change the industry. “In my view, this is about profits, risks, and rewards,” says Arena. “A single fossil fuel client, such as API or Shell, can generate millions of dollars in agency revenues annually. By comparison, a single sustainability client, such as Sierra Club or Patagonia, can generate a few hundred thousand. Therefore, many agencies seem to have calculated that the financial benefits of working with fossil fuel clients outweigh the reputational risk. Perhaps that is why we are seeing so many large agencies continue their fossil fuel work to this day, despite the escalating severity of the climate crisis.”
“Having said this, I am optimistic that we will see drastic change as agency reputations are called into question and the public becomes better informed,” she says. “Shareholders, employees, and clients expect agencies to live up to their words and want to be part of this discussion. This is a public conversation that is long overdue, and I am glad we are finally having it.”