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Climate changeable: a flip-flop drops PR firm Edelman in hot water


Coal-fired Power Plant in U.S.

Coal fired power plants in the southern USA. Coal fired plants are responsible for tremendous air pollution, heavy metal contamination in water and animals and the killing of forests from acid rain. Photograph: Les Stone/Corbis


Powered by article titled “Climate changeable: a flip-flop drops PR firm Edelman in hot water” was written by Marc Gunther, for on Tuesday 19th August 2014 11.00 UTC

A 1930s union song, popularized by the late great Pete Seeger, asks pointedly: “Which side are you on, boys? Which side are you on?”

On the issue of climate change, that question now confronts Edelman, one of the world’s largest and most admired public relations companies.

In the wake of a survey of the top 25 global PR firms by the Guardian and the Climate Investigations Center, released 4 August, the company scrambled to revise its ambivalent stance on representing companies that deny climate change. Backpedaling on the equivocation that it takes clients on a case-by-case basis, on 8 August, Edelman asked to submit a new response to the question, “Does your company acknowledge the threat and challenge of climate change?” Their reconsidered response:

Edelman fully recognizes the reality of, and science behind, climate change, and believes it represents one of the most important global challenges facing society, business and government today. To be clear, we do not accept client assignments that aim to deny climate change.

Beyond that, for nearly a decade, Edelman has built a reputation as the go-to PR firm for corporate sustainability by managing campaigns for the likes of GE (“Ecomagination”), Walmart and Unilever. Richard Edelman, the firm’s high-profile president and CEO, blogs about having dinner at the home of Jeffrey Sachs, his Harvard classmate and a noted climate hawk, and quotes Sachs as saying that “the world is on a very dangerous path.”

And yet.

The Edelman firm works for the American Petroleum Institute, the Washington-based trade association for the oil and gas industry, which opposed the 2009 Waxman-Markey climate change bill favored by some energy companies and utilities, supports the Keystone XL pipeline and exploration of the Canadian tar sands and says, in limp language on its website, that burning fossil fuels “may be helping to warm our planet.” Until recently, Edelman worked for the Alliance for Northwest Jobs and Exports, a coalition of coal, mining and railroad interests that promotes coal-export terminals in the Pacific Northwest that are strongly opposed by environmental groups. Another Edelman client is said to be ALEC, a conservative lobbying group that opposes regulations on carbon pollution. GE, Walmart and Unilever are among about 70 companies that have reportedly cut their ties with ALEC, although not over the climate issue.

So … which side are you on, boys?

This is by no means only an Edelman problem. Among other PR firms, Burson-Marsteller touts the virtues of coal for Peabody Energy, the world’s largest private-sector coal company, as Kate Sheppard reported with help from the Climate Investigatons Center, even as it says that “sustainable development is no longer an option, it’s a necessity.” Investments banks Goldman Sachs and Deutsche Bank, which say all the right things about climate, helped underwrite a public share offering by Coal India despite its dismal environmental record, as we reported last fall. And you can be sure that other professional services firms – law firms, ad agencies and accountants – will soon be asked to declare whether they, too, work for “climate deniers”.

Like the proverbial cobbler whose children go barefoot because he’s making shoes for others, Edelman has bungled the PR around the climate survey, as Brian Merchant and others have gleefully reported. Edelman only made matters worse with this blog post, for which it subsequently apologized, identifying the “opportunity” created by the suicide of Robin Williams.

But this is more than a kerfuffle about a PR firm’s gaffes. The tougher challenge for Edelman, and for others, going forward will be to stake out a position on climate change, arguably the defining issue of our time.


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