PR firms and who they work for

Some years ago the prominent head of an Australian PR agency claimed that PR companies were just like barristers – cabs for hire.

It was obvious nonsense as PR firms are free to choose to represent a client or not whereas barristers are much more limited in their choices.

The dilemma is highlighted as the PR industry is involved in a series of choices about what to do with clients and potential clients when their activities make global warming worse. Some of them are no doubt using the cab for hire principle to justify their choices others are taking a more principled stance.

In the last year or so 50 advertising and PR firms have joined a movement called Clean Creatives. Joining the movement means they pledge to refuse any future work for fossil fuel firms, or their trade associations.

BBC News has reported that they have some high-powered support. The UN Secretary General has claimed some: “High‑emitting governments and corporations are not just turning a blind eye, they are adding fuel to the flames.”

A report this year by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change said that “corporate advertisement and brand building strategies may also attempt to deflect corporate responsibility”. The study went on to ask whether tighter advertising regulation was required.

BBC News quoted Duncan Meisel, director at US-based Clean Creatives, who sees a shift happening. “We know there’s agencies not taking the pledge who have told us privately that they are no longer pitching to fossil fuel clients. It’s a step forward.”

Of course, some PR and ad companies continue to work for fossil fuel companies and come up with some innovative framing as justifications. For instance, WPP has said through a spokesman: “Our clients have an important role to play in the transition to a low carbon economy and how they communicate their actions must be accurate. We apply rigorous standards to the content we produce for our clients and seek to fairly represent their environmental commitments and investments. We will not take on any client, or work, whose objective is to frustrate the policies required by the Paris Agreement.”

So as long as they don’t intend to frustrate things with the denial campaigns they have been running for decades but just continue producing the stuff it’s apparently OK.

The same sort of pickle has confronted PR firm Edelman who last year was criticised for its work with clients such as American Fuel and Petrochemical Manufacturers, and also Exxon Mobil. This year it carried out a 60-day review and said it may have to ‘part ways’ with clients not committed to net zero.

Some quick Internet searches don’t reveal any Edelman client resignations although there are lots of fossil fuel companies committed to net zero and they might mean something rather like Augustine’s plea to God to give him chastity and continence but not just yet.

Edelman are also in the news (Politico 17 July 2022) for their work with the fossil fuel kingdom Saudi Arabia. It appears their latest deal with the Saudi’s brings them about $US787,000 a year. It may also be making about $US6.7 million from an account with Saudi Basic Industries Corporation majority owned by the government and has also done work for NEOM the new Saudi ’smart city.’

It shouldn’t be forgotten that the Edelman work is not all the Saudis do but operates alongside a massive lobbying effort in Washington and things like the Greg Norman LIV golf tournament.

On one of the most sensitive areas of Saudi policy (putting aside capital punishment, murdering dissidents, exploitation of migrant workers and treatment of women) Edelman ran a campaign promoting LinkedIn as “a platform that amplified the voices of Saudi career women.” Given the Saudis’ increasing closeness to Israel this might appropriately be described as chutzpah.

Not that Edelman forgot about global reputation risk as Politico reports that it put together a graph on global reputation risks which included women’s rights issues, violations of human rights, opinions of conservatives and religious freedom and fanaticism.

Not to worry – the answer was pop culture and celebrities – with Edelman proposing to recruit people like Taylor Swift, Kylie Jenner and David Beckham as Edelman did for a campaign for the Empire State building. That campaign was designed to help “transform the most famous building in the world into a material for cultural dialogue all over the world.”

Putting aside whether it is the most famous building in the world – after all only a few thousand others would be candidates for the title – what on earth is ‘a material for cultural dialogue’? It sounds more like a bit of post-modernist nonsense than a PR pitch unless PR pitches have changed dramatically since the blog retired. Although the blog has to confess it did once write a piece on PR and post-modernism which many readers didn’t recognise as a spoof and which was reproduced in some PR industry journals.

Edelman also proposed to “monitor online conversations and media coverage to identify ‘friends’ and ‘detractors’” which sounds a bit like a preliminary list for some people to be showered with largesse and others to get cut up into little pieces like Jamal Khashoggi.

Now much of this stuff was in a proposal and that doesn’t suggest any of it will be agreed to or implemented as demonstrated by various answers to Politico revealing the proposals.

A proposed link with Trevor Noah is already a non-starter; Art Basel has seen no proposal; MTV says it’s not involved ditto the Met; as are apparently others proposed including Jet Li, DJ Steve Aoiki, actor Maitreyi Ramakrishnan, Priyanka Chopra, DJ David Guetta and a social media influencer called Olivia Culpo.

Not that Edelman ignored a few minor issues management problems. In a simple graphic on global reputation risks it listed women’s rights issues, violation of human rights, opinions of conservatives (presumably in Saudi Arabia although they could be readily silenced rather than managed) and ‘religious freedom and fanaticism increased’. What on earth this last is supposed to mean is anyone’s guess.

It’s arguable that Saudi doesn’t need any PR help at all and equally there is probably no PR help which would help.

After all Joe Biden has visited in supplication about oil supplies, Greg Norman is warming up on the first tee and Donald Trump is probably charging an outrageous fee for the Saudis to use his golf course. And when, if he plays and cheats – as he regularly does – the Saudis won’t complain.

 Tony Jaques, the issues management specialist, alerted the blog to the Politico report.