The people paid to brighten businesses’ images and clean up their messes have been working on behalf of fossil fuel companies for decades, helping to block policies to tackle climate change. Now, there’s pressure on public relations firms to drop their oil and gas clients — and take up the cause of the planet.

Activists have recently turned their attention to Edelman, the world’s largest PR agency, which has worked with ExxonMobil, Shell, and the American Petroleum Institute, Big Oil’s powerful lobbyists. After reviewing its stance on climate change for eight weeks, Edelman announced early last month that it would be keeping its emissions-intensive clients on board (at least, for now) to guide them through a “trusted transition” to “start their journey to action” through net-zero emissions goals and other planet-friendly ambitions.

About two weeks later, 450 scientists signed a letter declaring that “advertising and public relations campaigns for fossil fuels must stop.” Astrid Caldas, a climatologist at the Union of Concerned Scientists, suggested that these agencies could put their marketing wiles to a better cause. “We’re calling on them to use their skills and resources to align with the science instead, and promote bold, ambitious, equitable climate action,” she said in a statement.

The problem is, the PR trade has been soaked in oil from the start. The relationship between publicists and oil companies traces back more than a century to when John D. Rockefeller, founder of Standard Oil, needed to rehabilitate his reputation after the Ludlow Massacre in 1914. A militia and private guards had opened fire on striking coal miners and torched their makeshift settlement, killing dozens of people — and Rockefeller was blamed for the incident.

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Over the decades, PR whizzes have come up with unexpected and effective strategies to burnish their clients’ images. And they’ve had a role in spreading doubt about climate science. Firms have hired actors to fake grassroots support for their fossil-fuel clients’ cause and intimidated journalists into reporting their side of the story. Although the work of these firms often goes unseen, recent research has highlighted their role in the climate crisis, showing how they have helped obstruct climate legislation and present a misleadingly green image of fossil fuel companies.

So what happens when PR firms try to clean up their act and turn the climate into their “client”? Melissa Aronczyk, a media studies professor at Rutgers and the co-author of a new book about public relations and environmentalism, argues that no matter how good the intentions, PR messaging often turns climate change into the “wrong” kind of problem.

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For their new book, A Strategic Nature: Public Relations and the Politics of American Environmentalism, Aronczyk and the sociologist Maria Espinoza interviewed 20 environmental advocates who had participated in pro-climate PR initiatives. They found that this kind of messaging is often too narrow for an issue as broad as climate change. Hyper-focused campaigns around recycling, eating less meat, or riding your bike seem all well and good, but they might have unintended consequences, dividing people instead of uniting them around a larger cause.

“What you end up doing is, you fragment the movement — you fragment the drive to take action on climate by reducing it to these little bite-sized things,” Aronczyk said in an interview with Grist. 

I spoke with Aronczyk to learn more about the pitfalls of PR for the planet — and how climate advocates can break through a fractured discourse. Our conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Q. What assumptions about PR are you trying to break down in your book?

A. What we’re trying to do is really expand our thinking about what public relations is. It’s much more than spin — our entire media system is really supported by public relations. PR people are constantly trying to get their clients in front of journalists to be quoted for sources. They’re also working with ad agencies. They’re also embedded in our political system. Often, a PR firm will have a lobbyist in house — instead of calling it “public relations,” they’ll call it “government relations” — and there they are on Capitol Hill, trying to curry influence with various politicians and bring their client’s point of view to the forefront.

Q. So what are the problems that people run into when they use PR for climate action?

A. What PR is set up to do is to identify certain people that are stakeholders around an issue and then use PR to deal with those stakeholders. So public relations becomes a bit of a misnomer, because it isn’t about the general public. Often, it’s a very targeted “public” that they’re trying to reach, usually around a very specific issue. So if Exxon is doing green sustainability campaigns, the PR firm will identify those “publics” that are most susceptible to being influenced by that type of conversation. Of course, Exxon might be having very different conversations with suppliers or manufacturers of their oil, and sustainability would not even be part of that. 

What became clear to me as I was talking to climate advocates about their use of PR was that in adopting the same kinds of strategies, and conveying a very targeted message to certain “publics” to get them to change their behavior, they would resort to the same kind of techniques, which then limited the capacity of their message to be impactful. So if you’re creating PR for the planet, you’re not creating that collective sense of societal response. Not only are you not reaching out to those publics that might most need to hear those arguments — you’re preaching to the converted, so to speak — but you’re also isolating different groups of people.

Q. Can you say more about why isolating groups is a problem and how these divisions play out?

A. Very often when it comes to a conversation about who’s doing what around climate change, companies have been seen as the enemy, the bad guys. When you see climate change as a battle, you sort of shoot yourself in the foot. That type of ‘us versus them’ rhetoric really entrenches people’s positions. You know, they’re more likely to reject what you have to say, not listen, not take you very seriously. And when it comes to climate change, we can’t afford to have people not take you seriously. We really don’t have a choice. We have to have everybody caring about this together.

Q. Were the climate advocates you interviewed uncomfortable with using PR tactics?

A. Well, some were, some weren’t. It was a bit of a spectrum. There are some environmentalists who really did associate the term “PR” with corporate or industry communication, and so they kind of shied away from it. Some of them just called it “advocacy” instead. But the majority had decided that public relations was necessary — that you had to use that machinery to create legitimacy for yourself and for the ideas you’re trying to get across. You want to promote attention to your cause.

Q. How have corporate PR campaigns changed the way we talk about the environment?

A. There’s research out now showing how recycling is actually a kind of an elaborate public relations strategy by some of the worst companies to try to continue business as usual so they can continue producing plastic bottles, and then the onus falls on the individual who drinks out of that bottle to recycle it. And that, to me, is the perfect example. It’s like, “I’m going to recycle my bottles, and I’m going to feel virtuous doing so.” What you see is companies continuing to do the very, very environmentally damaging practices they’ve been doing forever and making it look as though individual response is the right way to make change. And I just have so much trouble imagining that all of us recycling our bottles is going to really move the needle on the kind of change that we need.

Recycling bins decorated Pepsi bottles and with the Pepsi logo at a sporting event
Recycling bins sponsored by Pepsi ahead of Super Bowl XLIV in Miami, Feb. 5, 2010. Jeff Greenberg / Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Q. How do these messages get so ingrained?

A. One thing PR firms are really good at is creating their own networks of influence: public-private partnerships, sustainable business networks, awards, that kind of thing. They create a set of ideas around a particular issue; again, let’s say recycling. They will then have a variety of spokespeople from different groups that are all working together to say the same thing, to have a coherent message about the value of recycling, and will also often be working for clients who have a stake in the recycling industry. It’s being trumpeted from so many corners and so many seemingly different voices in different places, it starts to just seem like a common-sense approach to dealing with the problem. 

So then, let’s say you want to have a different conversation about dealing with the environment. You almost have to then come up with a new set of ideas in relation to recycling, because recycling is now so prominent as an idea about what people can do that you can’t ignore it. That narrative is so anchored in the conversation, so whatever you do next ends up being a pushback narrative or an underdog narrative. And getting the upper hand on that narrative gets really, really hard. 

And that I think, in a nutshell, is what we have seen with business and their sustainability initiatives over really the last 40 years in the United States. Businesses have gotten so good at being part of environmental conversations, so that even when climate activists tried to use PR and use the same types of strategies or networks, they haven’t had the impact that these business groups have.

Q. With climate change being such fragmented and polarized terrain now, how do you think advocates could get their point across, in spite of the difficulty in changing the narrative? 

A. One thing that became clear to us when writing the book is that the playbook, the set of techniques that PR people have used for so long to try to discount the importance of environmental problems, is a thin playbook. There are not that many tactics. What climate advocates have realized is that if they can use those same types of tactics and strategies, they really can have similar kinds of success, and they too can be very coordinated. It is ironic when I say that, because many of the tactics in the playbook are co-opted from early social movements and grassroots initiatives. So we can say it was actually advocates that developed these strategies in the first place, and then they got very convincingly taken over by companies.

If you have enough groups of people from enough sectors of society saying this isn’t right or this needs to change, then you are going to get a critical mass of attention.