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Climate activists protested outside ExxonMobil's annual meeting of shareholders in Irving, Texas on May 29, 2019. (Photo: 350.org/Flickr/cc)

Big Oil PR Firms a No-Show at House Hearing on Climate Disinformation

"This week Congress is set to take on Big Oil's lies and profiteering. The fossil fuel industry has made billions fueling the climate crisis and exploiting working people. We need to make them pay."

Jon Queally

Powerful advertising and public relations firms that help the fossil fuel industry deflect and misdirect from the planetary and human harm their Big Oil clients perpetrate in the world have opted not to show up for congressional hearings taking place Wednesday—a decision that critics say helps expose their complicity in the steady stream of misinformation stifling progress on the climate crisis.

"This hearing is PR agencies' worst nightmare."

With the House Natural Resource Committee's oversight panel, led by U.S. Representative Katie Porter (D-Calif.), set to kick off a hearing at 10:00 am, some of the major firms called to participate—including PR giants Singer Associates, Story Partners, and Pac/West Communications—rejected the invitation.

According to Reuters:

The hearing is the latest in a series of congressional hearings into whether the oil industry hindered government action on global warming. 

While public scrutiny around energy companies' "greenwashing" claims has grown, the marketing agencies behind the campaigns have largely escaped scrutiny. 

At the hearing, the committee will share findings of its investigation into public relations and advertising firms' work for fossil fuel companies based on its review of documents, such as their submissions for industry awards.

Jamie Henn, director of Fossil Free Media and member of the Clean Creatives campaign which has tried to push the PR industry to cut ties with fossil fuel clients, said the hearing is a bad look for the firms—and they know it.

"It's tempting to write off congressional hearings as political theater, but this hearing is PR agencies' worst nightmare," Henn told Common Dreams. "These agencies hate to be dragged into the spotlight: their whole job is to make their clients the story, not themselves."

"Many agencies are still trying to have it both ways," Henn added, "claiming climate credentials while still doing dirty work for the fossil fuel industry. This sort of exposure, and campaigns like Clean Creatives, make that conflict increasingly unworkable. I think we'll soon be at the point where no major agencies want to be seen working with fossil fuel clients."

Watch the hearing live here:

Last week, Merriam-Webster added the word "greenwash" to its dictionary, a development not lost on PR industry critics and climate campaigners like Henn who have spearheaded the effort between Big Oil propaganda and the firms who craft and help market such deceitful messaging:

Last month, Porter introduced new legislation aimed at protecting taxpayer funds from being used to generate climate misinformation. Called the End Subsidies for Fossil Fuel Advertising Act, the proposal would end all taxpayer subsidies for industry advertisements that encourage the continued use of oil and gas.

"Big Oil has been lying to the American people for decades about the damage they're causing our environment," Porter said in a statement introducing the bill. "It's bad enough these corporations poison the planet; they shouldn't get taxpayer dollars to cover it up. I'm proud to introduce this legislation that'll protect taxpayers from funding Big Oil's lies."

Porter's hearing Wednesday on the PR industry is part of a series of climate-focused hearings this week by House Democrats. Simultaneously on Wednesday, Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.), chair of the House Oversight Civil Rights and Civil Liberties Subcommittee, is holding a hearing on fossil fuel industry efforts to curb protests and free speech by environmental activists. And on Thursday, Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) will lead a separate House Oversight and Reform Committee hearing on Big Oil misinformation related to public pledges about their emission reductions and industry price gouging that has led to record-setting profits.

Earlier this year, over 450 scientists and climate experts called on major pr and ad firms to ditch the fossil fuel industry and have continued since to denounce creative communication professionals who choose to lend their skills to some of the companies most responsible for surging global temperatures and the damage that results.

"For decades, the fossil fuel industry has misled the public with greenwashing campaigns and sabotaged climate action, even as the climate crisis worsens," said Dr. Astrid Caldas, senior climate scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists, in January.

"It's clear we need to sharply cut carbon pollution as soon as possible—by at least 50% this decade and reaching net-zero preferably well before but no later than 2050—to avoid the most dangerous climate change impacts," said Caldas. "But the PR and advertising companies that abet the spread of climate disinformation are standing in the way. We're calling on them to use their skills and resources to align with the science instead, and promote bold, ambitious, [and] equitable climate action."


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