Last month, the United Nations chief Antonio Guterres called out the PR industry for enabling fossil fuel companies to sow disinformation and “knee-cap” a transition to renewable energy.
And earlier this year, more than 450 scientists called on PR agencies to cease working with fossil fuel companies.
Both acts are essential milestones in the movement to end the greenwashing of fossil fuel’s corporate reputation and intentions.
But the reality is, the PR agencies that Guterres and the scientists are calling out care far more about the sentiments of brand procurement decision-makers than what the UN secretary or a collation of scientists say.
This is why corporate procurement and business leaders should take it upon themselves to give PR agencies the motivation they need to drop fossil fuel clients.
There are myriad reasons for procurement and business leaders to take this approach.
First, the best brands and companies today are making significant efforts to develop their own sustainability goals. For these companies to procure services from a PR agency that consults for fossil fuel brands negates whatever sustainability measures a brand takes.
There is no point in a company establishing ambitious sustainability goals and then hiring a PR agency that bolsters the reputation of fossil fuel brands.
Brands can and should insist that their PR agencies have a plan to transition away from fossil fuel clients. If the people making PR agency procurement decisions at great companies make this a priority, agencies will follow.
Secondly, there is a clear path for agencies to move away from fossil fuel brands.
Brands can ask PR agencies not to sign new fossil fuel contracts. This allows an agency working for fossil fuel brands to implement a transition plan to replace fossil fuel clients with new clients and preserve jobs. The point is that PR agencies need to plan this transition. But if clients are not demanding it, PR agencies may never endeavour to do so independently.
The third reason for brands to avoid procuring services from PR agencies serving the fossil fuel industry is based on talent.
The best agencies employ the best people.
And increasingly, the world’s best PR professionals do not want to consult for fossil fuel brands, and soon, I predict that they do not want to work at agencies that generate income from fossil fuel brands.
People want to feel good about their work, and it’s hard to feel good about communicating on behalf of fossil fuel brands that have proven to have a significant disconnect between what they say they do on sustainability and what they do. Numerous studies demonstrate a gap between the considerable sustainability rhetoric of fossil fuel brands and their paltry investments in renewable energy.
A study from the PLOS ONE peer-reviewed journal found an apparent “mismatch between words, actions and investments” of fossil fuel brands that “provide the benefit of alleviating pressure from society [and] can prolong the social license to operate, providing valuable time for the majors to continue their core fossil fuel business.”
The current debate over working with fossil fuel brands isn’t the first time the PR industry has faced such an issue. PR agencies faced a similar dilemma when tobacco brands were caught openly dissembling on health issues while under oath speaking to policymakers. In this case, most of the world’s leading PR agencies dropped tobacco brands and replaced them with new clients.
As an industry, PR is generally thriving. Most PR agencies reported growing revenues over the last decade.
It’s also a fact that PR agencies are intrinsically flexible, adaptable and creative businesses. They can manoeuvre away from serving fossil fuel brands.
While the UN chief spotlighting this issue is helpful, it’s even more critical for the companies that hire PR agencies to follow suit.
Brand procurement executives who insist they will only procure PR services from agencies with plans to transition away from fossil fuel clients will be the real leaders.
Hundreds of PR and advertising agencies worldwide have taken the Clean Creatives Pledge, promising to take no new contracts from fossil fuel brands. Two weeks ago Allison Worldwide, a global firm, took the pledge representing one of the larger PR agencies to do so. This is an excellent sign of the PR industry’s commitment to assisting the transition away from fossil fuels towards clean energy.
But it’s not enough. Until clients insist that PR agencies put in place a plan to transition away from fossil fuel brands, too many agencies will continue to kick the can down the road.
As the UN chief says: “Fossil fuel interests need to spend less time averting a PR disaster—and more time averting a planetary one.”
But this will only happen when the business leaders who procure services of PR agencies insist their PR agencies are clean.
Brian Griffin is the CEO of Vero, an agency that took the Clean Creative Pledge in 2022, promising not to work with fossil fuel companies.