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Global warming has long been subjected to the propagandistic influence of a wide variety of public relations (PR) organizations. Yet, despite its overwhelming importance, the impact of public relations/propaganda on our awareness of global warming has long been overlooked.
Over the past decades, gas and oil corporations have engaged many – if not almost all – top PR firms in their quest to prevent people from getting to know the corporate pathologies that cause global warming – including our potential and impending global death. Global warming has the potential to end humanity as we know it.
The power and influence of anti-climate corporations – such as ExxonMobil and Koch Enterprises (i.e. Kochland) and conservative think tanks like the Heartland Institute and the Competitive Enterprise Institute – over the public debate on global warming is breath-taking. Yet, their public relations firms prefer to operate behind the scenes. Just as the mastermind of PR, Edward Bernays, once outlined, the work of PR firms requires that they remain invisible.
PR companies and related lobbying organizations as well as oil and gas corporations that engage such propaganda services have – for decades, as we now know – attempted and largely succeeded in maintaining a very low – if not invisible – profile. They have effectively managed to hide their function in the global warming debate while at the same time shaping public opinion behind the scenes.
These companies are: Edelman, Weber Shandwick, BCW, FleishmanHillard, Ketchum, MSL, Hill+Knowlton Strategies, Glover Part, Cerrell, Ogilvy, BlueFocus, and Brunswick. For most people, these names remain largely unknown – for good reason.
When it comes to propaganda that seeks to prevent our awareness of global warming, prime culprits like Edelman, Glover Part, Cerrell, and Ogilvy are the major players. They work together with ultra-conservative and neoliberal think tanks as well as related anti-environmental groups. In some cases, they even employed what became known as astroturfing, the setting up of fake environmental groups pretending to be grassroots organizations but paid for by corporations.
Perhaps the height of corporate engagement by these key PR firms has come since the end of the 1980s. Up to now, they continue to work on circumventing scientific knowledge about global warming. Their task is to ensure that this does not reach the public domain. Simultaneously, they also seek to defame whom and what they have identified as the enemy of polluting corporations: environmental NGOs, politicians, government agencies, and related (often scientific and research) institutions. Much of this has a long history.
What they learned from the tobacco battle and the 100 million people who died from the products of tobacco corporations, they are now applying to global warming. One of the more common PR methods is known as PR’s 3Ds: deny that global warming exists at all; and when this is no longer possible, move to deflect, claiming that climate change is not really that severe an issue; and when this stops working, move to delay, just adapt to global warming and everything will be fine.
The concentration of economic wealth in so-called advanced countries – including the USA – enables well-funded corporations and corporate lobbying organizations to become dominant advocates of specific policy positions on global warming. The strategic power of a handful of public relations firms greatly enhances this advocacy.
The origin of PR firms dates back to the corporate work of a former press agent with the name Ivy Lee (1877-1934), better known as Poison Ivy. Poison Ivy not only whitewashed John D. Rockefeller after a little massacre but also Standard Oil and, more importantly, he advised Hitler’s most evil corporation, IG Farben. Together with Hitler’s SS, IG Farben created Auschwitz – originally planned as a factory to produce synthetic rubber and liquid fuels. Germany’s IG Farben also produced Zyklon B, one of the most horrific signifiers for the Holocaust that killed millions.
Like Poison Ivy, the true post-World War II instigator of PR, Edward Bernays, also utilized PR to polish the image of corporations. Eventually, further development and constant refinement of PR led to a specialized industry valued at $90bn in 2020. One such specialization is anti-environmental PR, which emerged during the 1970s, roughly ten years after the sizable public outcry that followed the seminal publication of Rachel Carson‘s Silent Spring in 1962 (DDT).
As Carson uncovered the toxic legacy of chemical pesticides, the chemical industry and its main lobbying organization, the Chemical Manufacturers Association, orchestrated a colossal counter-campaign. Its goal was to create distrust in Carson’s scientific findings. Yet, they failed in stemming the tide of growing awareness of the issue raised by Silent Spring. Nonetheless, this early PR campaign made corporate bosses attentive to the fact that manipulating public perceptions is a worthwhile – even a necessary – enterprise.
Over time, these deeply political PR campaigns set up programs encompassing substantial organizational and financial resources. Meanwhile, the secrecy of corporate PR companies does not aid the quest to put a precise monetary value on their propagandistic undertakings. Estimates of their PR expenditures range from $10 million to as much as $100 million per year, often spent on a single PR campaign.
Quite often, such PR campaigns are organized via an intricate system of corporations and related organizations. Besides oil and gas corporations, the anti-global warming setup includes two more players. First are conservative, neoliberal, and corporate-sponsored think tanks. Second are pro-business public relations firms. As a consequence, the overall structure includes three key players:
oil & gas corporations n think tanks n PR firms
These three entities and their interface build the core component of anti-environmental PR. This PR allows for the development and broadcasting of accidental anti-environmental misinformation as well as deliberate disinformation about global warming. Together, these three – the non-good, the bad, and the ugly – have a significant impact on the resultant anti-environmental media coverage of global warming.
Yet, at the time the issue of global warming started to emerge during the 1980s, the use of PR firms by corporations had already become standard operating procedure. It was always called upon when corporations needed to improve their image, prop up their reputation, and whitewash their businesses. Over many years, it was routinely employed by almost all corporations involved in controversial issues such as DDT, tobacco, auto safety, baby formula, car emissions – the list goes on.
A prime example of how this works is this: the now-defunct corporate lobby organization Global Climate Coalition was once a leading industry group. It was invented and set up to oppose global warming. It hired E. Bruce Harrison, who was the PR director at the Chemical Manufacturers Association and vice president of Freeport Minerals Company. Despite having led an organization that no longer exists, he is widely seen as being one of the master propagandists of anti-environmental PR.
Harrison’s task was to invent and carry out anti-environmental PR campaigns to stop domestic as well as international efforts to fight global warming. The industries with an interest in anti-environmental PR/propaganda are roughly composed of three key groups:
· the coal, steel, and rail industries;
· the aforementioned and all-powerful oil and gas industry; and
· utilities, i.e., gas, oil, and coal-burning power stations.
A recent study found that the predominant corporations that engage PR firms to manipulate the public sphere are the oil and gas industry, followed by utilities (power stations). Together, they make up about 75% of all companies and corporations that use PR to manipulate our knowledge and attitudes about global warming.
When it comes to actual corporations using anti-environmental PR, the definite front runners are electrical engineering companies like General Electric and Siemens, as well as oil and gas corporations like Royal Dutch Shell, BP, ExxonMobil, Chevron, and Mobile Oil. When it comes to whom they employ to engineer anti-environmental PR campaigns, the following picture emerges: the top 25% global PR firms account for over 70% of all PR engagements.
Almost self-evidently, all of these highly polluting corporations have a strong interest in preventing knowledge and awareness of global warming. However, to run anti-environmental campaigns, they need PR firms. The PR firms never grow tired of living up to one of PR’s core dictums, PR’s golden rule: the best PR is invisible PR. Perhaps this applies to anti-environmental PR even more than to other cases of corporate PR, when simple whitewashing of a corporation is needed, usually after one of the all too frequently recurring corporate scandals.
Virtually all PR firms follow the Edward Bernays motto that corporate PR needs to be an invisible governor of society. As a consequence, PR firms and their even more secret financiers – corporations – go to great lengths to conceal their true identity as well as their role in anti-environmental campaigns. For many of these campaigns, corporate PR tends to use three types of strategies:
(1) third-party mobilization (e.g., astroturfing);
(2) corporate image promotion (e.g., whitewashing); and
(3) de-legitimization of the opposition (e.g., attacking NGOs and climate scientists).
These three PR strategies are used for inside lobbying, when corporate lobbyists talk directly with politicians, bureaucrats, etc., as well as outside lobbying. Outside lobbying focuses on engineering public support for a corporation and for pro-business government regulations (camouflaged as de-regulation) through the use of all three public relations techniques. Inside and outside lobbying are two sides of one coin. They seek to control the external environment of corporations via manipulating what enters into the public sphere.
Beyond all that, there is a very clear-cut division of tasks among the entire setup. Many PR firms have specialized in representing one of the three most anti-environmental sectors interested in preventing knowledge about global warming. They either represent coal, steel, and rail; the oil and gas industry; or utilities, the owners of polluting power stations.
The top 5 PR firms which do that are: 1) Edelman, 2) Burson Cohn & Wolfe (BCW), 3) Cerrell, 4) Hill & Knowlton, and 5) Oglivy. Among others, one of their most common tasks remains greenwashing. This involves polishing a corporate image, a core part of so-called corporate reputation management.
Greenwashing is modelled on whitewashing. It is sometimes also called green sheen. Greenwashing is a form of environmental marketing and spin/propaganda using manipulative deceptions to persuade the public that a polluting corporation or their environmentally destructive products are good. They claim it is environmentally friendly, sustainable, has a low carbon footprint, and adheres to the principles of Corporate Social Responsibility, or CSR. Yet, some see CSR – just like business ethics – as an ideology. Over time, greenwashing has become one of the core parts of propaganda and public relations.
On the other hand, the deliberate publicizing of scientific misinformation as a targeted PR strategy does not appear to be very widespread among the aforementioned PR firms. Instead, they live from hiding the truth, as well as creating and circulating distortions, manipulations, deceptions, etc. At the same time, the dissemination of scientific misinformation produced, for example, by anti-environmental think tanks, corporations such as ExxonMobil, etc. and related trade associations (e.g. the American Petroleum Institute) has been extremely well documented.
All of this has never stopped PR firms from astroturfing –setting up fake grassroots organizations simulating widespread support by (not really) ordinary people for a corporate anti-environmental position. Yet, this remains a somewhat less favorable strategy of PR firms because astroturfing is intensely time-consuming, very costly to set up, and can quickly backfire once the role of a PR firm in the setting of up a fake environmental movement is exposed.
Over several years, it has become very clear that PR firms remain a major factor in distorting and manipulating people’s knowledge and attitudes on global warming. In doing this, the major PR firms tend to specialize in representing a specific set of corporations.
Globally, there are just a handful of very large PR firms that are running deceptive campaigns seeking to prevent any awareness of global warming. Their goal is to shift public opinion in favor of corporations and against the ever-increasing knowledge of the devastating impacts global warming has – and will have – on the lives of millions, if not billions, of people around the world.
As long as there is money to be made, profits secured, and billions of dollars shifted toward the rich, many PR firms are quite happy to give a helping (read: manipulating) hand to polluting corporations and their henchmen. For the foreseeable future, and given what has been said above, anti-environmental PR and propaganda can be expected to continue to play a vital role in the debate on global warming.