This article first appeared on Campaign Asia

 

In his most impassioned and direct address to the communications industry yet, UN Secretary-General António Guterres has urged PR and advertising agencies to stop working with fossil fuel companies and join the climate fight.

“I call on these companies to stop acting as enablers to planetary destruction. Stop taking on new fossil fuel clients, from today, and set out plans to drop your existing ones,” Guterres said. “Fossil fuels are not only poisoning our planet—they’re toxic for your brand,” he continued.“Your sector is full of creative minds who are already mobilizing around this cause. They are gravitating towards companies that are fighting for our planet—not trashing it.”

Mr. Guterres previously made similar but less targeted statements in 2022 and 2023. If anything, these statements are overdue, given that the planet is close to breaching 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels, that each month since June 2023 has been the hottest on record, and that, in the face of these facts, the “godfathers of climate chaos” continue to rake in billions, sharing it with the PR agencies that trumpet their inflated sustainability claims.

A 2022 report by Influence Map showed that 60% of communications by the five big oil companies contained at least one green claim, with most of those “highlighting the companies’ support of, or involvement with, efforts to transition the energy mix”. It estimates that they spent about $750 million per year on communications related to climate activities, while their business models continue to defy the Paris Agreement and they continue to lobby for subsidies and against regulation of the industry.

Data from the International Energy Agency shows that in 2022, oil and gas producers account for only 1% of total clean energy investment globally. This failure to invest in renewables shows a disconnect between their green statements and their policies on the ground. Chevron, for instance, mentioned sustainability in 80% of its advertisements while allocating a mere 1.8% of capital spending to non-oil and gas projects in 2020 and 2021.

In Southeast Asia, one of the world’s most climate-vulnerable regions, misleading sustainability claims and greenwashing are rampant. Fossil fuel companies, which supply over 80% of the region’s energy mix, often use reward programs and prizes to build brand loyalty—The more you purchase, the better your chances of winning a Porsche!—distracting the public from the damaging impact of their operations.

As a firm rooted in Southeast Asia, Vero unequivocally supports Mr. Guterres’ stance and believes it is the responsibility of communications agencies like ourselves — and the industry as a whole — to take heed. Failure to respond to this high-profile call is akin to sticking our heads in the tar sands.

If we refuse to regulate ourselves, we can bet that governments will follow the UN Chief’s call to do so — as many have done for tobacco since the 1970s and some have done for fossil fuels already. But we should not take action just to avoid regulation; rather, it’s about doing what’s right for the future of our world.

The ethical dilemma of greenwashing

PR fossil fuels

Of course, it’s not that simple, as declining work from fossil fuel companies presents significant challenges for some PR agencies. Long-standing relationships that involve complex contracts, loyalty, and dependency combined with gloomy market realities and ambiguous industry standards frequently outweigh our stated values and ethics.

And many enter partnerships with Big Oil with the best intentions. I’ve come across PR people who make the argument that agencies should work with fossil fuel clients so they can have “a seat at the table” to play a role in steering polluting clients towards more sustainable business models.

However, it would be naive to believe that an external agency can influence or alter longstanding corporate policies of the fossil fuel industry. Time and time again, we witness the industry prioritizing profits over critical environmental and social considerations. The menu is fixed even before we come to the table; our role is in how to present it. The brief to the PR agency is to neutralize the image.

It wasn’t long ago that oil giants were trying to outdo one another with targets to cut carbon emissions, but in more recent times we’ve seen them walk back their climate goals. Or in an interesting turn of events, the ExxonMobil CEO has publicly blamed consumers for not being willing to pay for the energy transition. When working with companies that are refusing to hear the hard truth about sustainability, agencies either resort to greenwashing or simply walk away—which over 1,000 agencies have done.

The uncomfortable reality is that, by aiding fossil fuel companies in their efforts to greenwash their activities and delay climate action, the communications industry too, has blood on its hands —a grievous betrayal from a sector that has led monumental campaigns promoting social equality, women’s empowerment, and mental health, among many others.  

How can we expect our clients that are doing genuine good to trust our commitment to their mission when we’re working to disguise or distract from the causes of the biggest challenge to the future of human civilization?  The hypocrisy is reminiscent of a certain conglomerate running anti-smoking campaigns in various markets while spending decades working for British American Tobacco, while the backlash against another directly illustrates its potential consequences.

The next best move

There is a clear way out—a difficult but necessary path—which is for advertising and PR firms to divest from and swear off future work for all fossil fuel and fossil fuel-adjacent clients. Vero did this when we signed the Clean Creatives pledge in 2022, and we feel strongly that each agency or practitioner who has taken on the same commitment helps to reduce the fossil fuel industry’s ability to mislead the public and increase its accountability. We had the advantage of not having existing fossil fuel partnerships, and we understand it’s more complicated for others to extricate themselves from these toxic relationships. But it is eminently doable, and it represents the first step towards a crucial transformation.

For the next best move, communications professionals and creatives can use our skills to elucidate rather than obfuscate the realities and complexities of climate change. We can encourage more PR agencies to leverage their influence and creativity to take on clients and organizations that support the transition to a low-carbon economy, do great work for them, and amplify the voices of climate advocates and communicators—creators like @theweirdandwild, whose engaging content sheds light on complex climate issues.

The bottom line is that we can no longer afford to ignore our industry’s role in defending the indefensible. Pivoting towards sustainability and prioritizing ethics and social good over profit-driven partnerships is a fundamental responsibility we’ve overlooked for far too long.

The UN Chief has made it clear: we must stop covering for duplicitous fossil fuel companies. Continuing to ignore his message does a great disservice to the planet and humanity.


ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Lin Kuek is the Head of Sustainability Communications at Vero, a Southeast Asia-based communications consultancy. Lin leads sustainability workshops and training across the region, guiding brands, journalists, and communicators in navigating the pitfalls of greenwashing.