This article was originally published on Campaign Asia.

This past June, the United Nations Chief Antonio Guterres called out the PR industry for enabling fossil fuel companies to sow disinformation and “knee-cap” a transition to renewable energy.

And earlier this year, more than 450 scientists called on PR agencies to cease working with fossil fuel companies.

Both acts are important milestones in the movement to end the greenwashing of fossil fuel corporations’ activities and reputations.

But the reality is that many PR agencies care far more about the sentiments of brand procurement decision-makers than what the UN secretary or a coalition of scientists say.

This is why corporate procurement and business leaders should take it upon themselves to give PR agencies the motivation they need to cease consulting fossil fuel clients.

More than 600 PR agencies have pledged not to work with fossil fuel companies by signing on to the Clean Creatives pledge. Yet, 294 PR agencies appeared on the most recent F-list consisting of PR and advertising agencies that continue to serve the interests of fossil fuel companies.

What the world needs is for all major companies to make clear that they would prefer for their PR agencies to cease working with fossil fuel brands.

When the world’s leading companies state that they want their PR agencies to implement a plan to phase out fossil fuel clients, we will see those agencies make a genuine and concerted effort to stop working with fossil fuel brands.

There are myriad reasons for procurement and business leaders to take this approach.

First, the best brands and companies in the world today are making significant efforts to develop their own sustainability goals. For these companies to procure services from a PR agency that consults for fossil fuel brands negates whatever sustainability measures a brand is taking. There is no point in a company establishing ambitious sustainability goals and then hiring a PR agency that bolsters the reputations of fossil fuel brands.

Secondly, there is a clear path for agencies to move away from fossil fuel brands. Brands can ask PR agencies not to sign new fossil fuel contracts. This allows an agency working for fossil fuel brands an opportunity to put in place a transition plan to replace fossil fuel clients with new ones and preserve jobs in the process. The point is that PR agencies need to plan this transition, but many will only feel incentivized to do so if their current or prospective clients are demanding it.

The third reason for brands to avoid procuring services from PR agencies serving the fossil fuel industry is based on talent. The best agencies maintain their status only as long as they continue to employ the best people. And increasingly, the world’s best PR professionals do not want to consult for fossil fuel brands. I expect that there will soon be a wave of talented professionals refusing to work at agencies that generate income from fossil fuel brands. For the clients of those agencies, that exodus will mean lower quality service despite their prestigious names (and premium fees).

People want to feel good about the work they do, and it’s hard to feel good about helping fossil fuel brands.  Numerous studies demonstrate a gap between their rhetoric around sustainability and their paltry investments in renewable energy — particularly compared to their continued investment in oil and gas extraction and industry lobbying.

For example, a study from the peer-reviewed journal PLOS ONE found a clear “mismatch between words, actions and investments” of fossil fuel brands that “provide the benefit of alleviating pressure from society can prolong the social license to operate, providing valuable time for the majors to continue their core fossil fuel business.”

The current debate over working with fossil fuel brands isn’t the first time the PR industry has faced such an issue. PR agencies faced a similar dilemma when tobacco brands were caught openly dissembling on health issues while under oath speaking to policymakers. In that case, most of the world’s leading PR agencies dropped tobacco brands and replaced them with new clients because of the stigma attached to burnishing the tobacco companies’ reputations.

As an industry, PR is generally thriving. Most PR agencies reported growing revenues over the last decade.

It’s also a fact that PR agencies are intrinsically flexible, adaptable, and creative businesses. They can maneuver away from serving fossil fuel brands, but those that have pledged to cut ties are still a minority.

While the UN chief spotlighting this issue is helpful, it’s even more important for the companies that hire PR agencies to follow suit. Brand procurement executives who insist they will only procure PR services from agencies with plans in place to transition away from fossil fuel clients will be the real leaders on the issue.

Last week, the global firm Allison Worldwide took the Clean Creative pledge, becoming one of the larger PR agencies to promise to cease consulting for fossil fuel brands. This is a great sign of the PR industry’s willingness to assist the transition away from fossil fuels towards clean energy.

However, too many agencies — including many of the largest and most prestigious —continue to kick the can down the road, as Clean Creatives’ 2023 F-list attests.

As Mr. Guterres said: “Fossil fuel interests need to spend less time averting a PR disaster – and more time averting a planetary one.”

But this will only happen when the business leaders who procure services of PR agencies insist on it.

Join Vero and 600 other agencies in taking the Clean Creative Pledge; sign up here.


ABOUT THE AUTHOR 

Brian Griffin is the CEO of Vero, an agency that pledged in 2022 not to work with fossil fuel companies.