Skip to main content

Sign up for our newsletter.

Quality journalism. Progressive values. Direct to your inbox.

Dear Common Dreams Readers:
Corporations and billionaires have their own media. Shouldn't we? When you “follow the money” that funds our independent journalism, it all leads back to this: people like you. Our supporters are what allows us to produce journalism in the public interest that is beholden only to people, our planet, and the common good. Please support our Mid-Year Campaign so that we always have a newsroom for the people that is funded by the people. Thank you for your support. --Jon Queally, managing editor

Join the small group of generous readers who donate, keeping Common Dreams free for millions of people each year. Without your help, we won’t survive.

Greenwashing = Murder

Demonstrators march down Hope Street in Glasgow, Scotland, on November 3, 2021 for a march against greenwashing organized by Extinction Rebellion during COP26. (Photo: Jane Barlow/PA Images via Getty Images)

Research Reveals How PR Firms Have Spent Decades Fueling Climate Misinformation

"The best time to stop working for fossil fuel clients was 20 years ago, when we had much more time to stop the climate emergency. The second best time is now."

Jessica Corbett

A pair of Brown University researchers on Tuesday exposed how public relations firms hired by the fossil fuel industry have significantly contributed to misinformation about the worsening climate emergency and impeded action to address it over the past few decades.

"The hard truth is that advertising and public relations agencies are essential to the fossil fuel industry's propaganda machine."

The new peer-reviewed paper, published in the journal Climatic Change, comes as Big Oil along with the advertising and PR firms they employ face mounting scrutiny within and beyond Congress—including at a historic U.S. House of Representatives hearing featuring fossil fuel CEOs last month.

Robert J. Brulle and Carter Werthman of the Institute at Brown for Environment and Society wrote that "as major players in the climate political arena," PR firms such as Cerrell, Edelman, Glover Park, and Ogilvy "have shifted public discourse and the prospects for climate action."

"The fossil fuel industry's obstruction of climate action goes beyond misinformation and climate denial," Brulle told DeSmog. "A major part of the effort to obstruct climate action involves enhancing the positive public reputation for the fossil fuel companies and emphasizing the benefits of continued fossil fuel use."

"From the severity of climate impacts to policies to address the problem," he said, "PR firms are a big part of the corporate propaganda machinery that guides the way Americans think about the issue."

The researchers examined "the extent and nature of involvement" of more than 600 PR firms in climate-related political action by organizations in five sectors: coal, steel, and rail; oil and gas; utilities; renewable energy; and the environmental movement from 1988 to 2020.

"Within each sector, engagement of PR firms is concentrated in a few firms, and the major oil companies and electrical-supply manufactures are the heaviest employers of such firms," the paper says, noting that the environmental movement engaged the fewest PR firms in the studied period.

"PR firms generally specialize in representing specific sectors, and a few larger PR firms are widely engaged in climate and energy political activity," the paper continues. "PR firms developed campaigns that frequently relied on third-party groups to engage with the public, criticize opponents, and serve as the face of an advertising campaign."

"The impact of these campaigns is hard to ascertain. However, these efforts have instantiated cultural concepts such as 'coal country' or 'carbon footprint' into the taken-for-granted discourse on climate change," the study adds. Other terms that "originated with" and were "promulgated by" PR firms include "clean coal" and "renewable natural gas."

Part of what makes this analysis notable is that—despite recent initiatives such as the Clean Creatives campaign—the public relations industry has faced limited scrutiny for its contributions to climate misinformation compared with major polluters and right-wing think tanks.

Brulle told The Washington Post's climate-focused newsletter that right-wing think tanks' opposition to climate action has received far more attention from reporters and lawmakers.

"Everybody knows about the Heartland Institute and the Competitive Enterprise Institute and the Koch brothers. That's not really news anymore," Brulle said. "But the other 95% of these companies' efforts to greenwash their reputations and shift public opinion are being ignored."

That's by design. The study points out that "the work of PR firms requires that they 'remain invisible.' Accordingly, PR firms and the organizations that engage their services have endeavored to maintain a low profile regarding their role in climate communications efforts."

Duncan Meisel, director of Clean Creatives, which pressures ad and public relations agencies to drop fossil fuel clients, welcomed the researchers' efforts to highlight the ties between fossil fuel companies and PR firms.

"Agencies like Edelman, Ogilvy, and WeberShandwick named in this report need to recognize that work for fossil fuel companies is doing significant damage to their reputation and legacy," Meisel said. "The hard truth is that advertising and public relations agencies are essential to the fossil fuel industry's propaganda machine, and work for fossil clients has stopped the world from adequately responding to the climate emergency."

"The best time to stop working for fossil fuel clients was 20 years ago, when we had much more time to stop the climate emergency," he added. "The second best time is now."

Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.

Just a few days left in our crucial Mid-Year Campaign and we might not make it without your help.
Who funds our independent journalism? Readers like you who believe in our mission: To inform. To inspire. To ignite change for the common good. No corporate advertisers. No billionaire founder. Our non-partisan, nonprofit media model has only one source of revenue: The people who read and value this work and our mission. That's it.
And the model is simple: If everyone just gives whatever amount they can afford and think is reasonable—$3, $9, $29, or more—we can continue. If not enough do, we go dark.

All the small gifts add up to something otherwise impossible. Please join us today. Donate to Common Dreams. This is crunch time. We need you now.

'Witness Intimidation. Clear as Day': Jan. 6 Panel Teases Evidence of Cover-Up Effort

"Add witness tampering to the laundry list of crimes Trump and his allies must be charged with," said professor Robert Reich.

Jessica Corbett ·

'Bombshell After Bombshell' Dropped as Jan. 6 Testimony Homes In On Trump Guilt

"Hutchinson's testimony of the deeply detailed plans of January 6 and the inaction of those in the White House in response to the violence show just how close we came to a coup," said one pro-democracy organizer.

Brett Wilkins ·

Mark Meadows 'Did Seek That Pardon, Yes Ma'am,' Hutchinson Testifies

The former aide confirmed that attorney Rudy Giuliani also sought a presidential pardon related to the January 6 attack.

Jessica Corbett ·

UN Chief Warns of 'Ocean Emergency' as Leaders Confront Biodiversity Loss, Pollution

"We must turn the tide," said Secretary-General António Guterres. "A healthy and productive ocean is vital to our shared future."

Julia Conley ·

'I Don't F—ing Care That They Have Weapons': Trump Wanted Security to Let Armed Supporters March on Capitol

"They're not here to hurt me," Trump said on the day of the January 6 insurrection, testified a former aide to ex-White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows.

Jake Johnson ·

Common Dreams Logo