The world’s largest PR firm has crafted a strategy to simulate popular support for fossil fuels, including embracing influencers to peddle Big Oil’s self-serving myths.
The world’s largest PR firm is responsible for using oil and gas workers to obstruct climate action. (Getty Images)
The world’s largest public relations firm has used insights from its lauded annual global survey of consumer trust and corporate credibility to help fossil fuel and petrostate clients promote climate obstruction.
According to a new briefing from the Clean Creatives, an advocacy group focused on cutting the public relations industry’s ties with fossil fuels, the PR juggernaut Edelman has employed its purportedly definitive “trust barometer” — the newest edition of which was released on Monday at the World Economic Forum — to help fossil fuel companies more effectively manufacture public trust. With Edelman’s help, these corporations turned oil and gas workers into a positive public face for fossil fuels, obscuring the role of the profit-hungry executives who actually pull the strings.
The trust barometer has “always been positioned as this quasi-academic contribution of Edelman: ‘We’re just looking at how things are shaped in the world,’ as if they’re doing it in some magnanimous gesture or service to the world,” Kert Davies, director of special investigations at the nonprofit Center for Climate Integrity, told the Lever. “This report shows that the trust barometer is built to generate business.”
Clean Creatives’ findings, which are being published for the first time by the Lever, include the revelation that “Energy Citizens,” an ultimately successful astroturf campaign launched by the American Petroleum Institute while Edelman was the organization’s single largest contractor, hewed closely to Edelman’s proprietary insights about trust. The effectiveness of Energy Citizens, which involved making oil and gas workers the “human face” of the fossil fuel industry to create the impression of widespread grassroots support, contributed to the defeat of US climate legislation in 2010.
In 2014, well after Edelman had begun to use the annual trust barometer to construct its own reputation as an objective and authoritative source on trust in society, the firm leveraged its survey findings for TransCanada, a Canadian oil and gas giant that needed help persuading the public to support the construction of Energy East, its controversial tar sands pipeline from Alberta to the Atlantic coast.
In “grassroots advocacy” documents leaked by Greenpeace, Edelman suggests a “recruitment goal” of 35,000 “advocates” for the pipeline — including 1,200 TransCanada employees, or around a quarter of the company’s workforce — who would be “tagged and tracked” in part by “how they perform over time” in pushing for the pipeline.
“Edelman’s recommended approach to public relations is built upon the provision of insights from research; our work with Energy East will be no different,” Edelman advised TransCanada at the time. These insights stemmed in part from “research data from our annual trust barometer.”
According to Duncan Meisel, executive director of Clean Creatives, such examples illustrate how Edelman has used its insights — under the guise of studying public trust — to help the fossil fuel industry fight climate action.
“When Edelman finds that engagement from employees and ‘people like me’ is an important part of developing trust in corporations, you immediately see those tactics being deployed on behalf of the American Petroleum Institute and companies like TransCanada,” said Meisel. “It’s clear that the trust barometer isn’t just a reflection of Edelman’s perspective on trust, but it’s actually a piece of how they advance the goals and strategies of fossil fuel polluters.”
When asked for comment, an Edelman spokesperson sent the Lever the following statement: “We use the insights from the trust barometer research to inform our teams and help organizations earn and protect trust. We also make the findings available publicly and share the data with academic and other third-party researchers to help inform their work.”
“Soft Power . . . Is Part of Climate Obstruction”
Edelman released a new edition of its trust barometer on Monday at the World Economic Forum, the exclusive gathering of corporate and political elites, in Davos, Switzerland.
“We have the privilege of being in the room where it happens,” Richard Edelman, the firm’s CEO, wrote in a blog post last month. “There is power in what we do, to set a new context, to motivate through ideas that enable action.”
Edelman is the largest independent PR firm in the world, with more than $1 billion in annual revenues. The firm has a two-decade-long track record of working for the fossil fuel industry, serving corporate clients — including Shell, ExxonMobil, and the lobbying group American Fuel and Petrochemical Manufacturers — as well as oil-rich petrostates such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
Edelman began working for the Saudi government in 2013, but expanded its relationship with the kingdom following Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s rise to power. The trust barometer “provide[s] valuable data and insights both for Edelman’s own operations and those of its clients to inform communications approaches in each sector,” declared the Arab Weekly in 2022, celebrating Edelman’s finding that Saudi citizens professed high levels of trust in the authoritarian regime.
More recently, Edelman earned headlines for its lucrative work for the Emirati government and specifically for Sultan Al Jaber, the head of Abu Dhabi’s state-run oil company and chair of last year’s UN climate summit in Dubai.
At the Dubai summit, “the Saudi government was the leading force in opposing language around eliminating fossil fuels in the draft text,” Clean Creatives’ Meisel said. “This is their goal. And so the soft power that [Edelman is] helping these countries develop through something like the trust barometer is part of climate obstruction.”
“Corporations Need to Change to Win”
The trust barometer emerged in 2000 from Edelman’s effort to understand why Americans were losing faith in corporations. The first measure involved a telephone survey of around 1,300 “opinion shapers” in the United States, Europe, and Australia. Today the trust barometer incorporates online responses from thirty-two thousand people across twenty-eight countries, sometimes separating respondents into a “mass population” and a higher-income, college-educated “informed public.”
In a 2021 retrospective, Richard Edelman described the creation of the survey “as a direct response to the ‘Battle of Seattle’” — protests and marches against globalization surrounding a 1999 meeting of the World Trade Organization.
In a slide deck that accompanied the first trust barometer, released in January 2001, Edelman said that nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) were “winning” in part because they “skip elite media and go straight to the consumer through web, popular press, [and] TV.”
“NGOs have taken their case straight to the consumer,” Steve Lombardo, then head of Edelman’s StrategyOne arm that produced the early trust surveys, said. “Corporations need to change to win. They need to adopt strategies and tactics that are similar to NGOs.” (In 2014, less than a year after leaving Edelman, Lombardo became the chief communications and marketing officer at Koch Industries.)
By 2006, the trust barometer reported that a company’s “most credible spokesperson” was no longer a “third-party expert” but rather a “person like yourself.” Edelman also observed “skyrocket[ing]” trust in “regular employees” and “friends [and] family.”
That year’s barometer included what Edelman called a “New Approach to Communications,” which suggested that firms would be better off prioritizing “peer-to-peer engagement” over “top-down” communications. According to Edelman’s presentation, “employees” and “core consumers” would be among an organization’s “best advocates.”
Edelman did not publish the full data or the methodology behind the survey. But the firm continued to use its proprietary data to refine its advice for corporations, encouraging them to move away from obvious, top-down PR efforts, and toward what today we commonly call “influencers.”
“A ‘person like me’ is not based on standard demographics like gender, race, or religion, but rather on shared interests, professions, and political beliefs,” Edelman declared in a report accompanying the 2007 trust barometer. “The key . . . is to identify groups of people who think alike and facilitate the exchange of substantive information among them.”
“Citizens Like You, Raising Their Voices”
As Edelman was discovering the persuasive power of a “person like me,” it was also building relationships with an industry hungry for its advice.
“The U.S. oil sector has rarely enjoyed public popularity,” Tim Wood, a professor in the department of communication and media studies at Fordham University, told the Lever. “They routinely fall near the bottom of surveys ranking the industries Americans trust. So while companies in other sectors might be able to take those trust barometer findings with a grain of salt, oil industry players were more primed to listen.”
One such industry player would become one of Edelman’s biggest clients: the American Petroleum Institute (API), the country’s largest lobbying group for oil and gas companies.
API launched a front group, Energy Citizens, in 2009 in an effort “to put a human face on the impacts of unsound energy policy,” as API president Jack Gerard phrased it in a leaked email that August. Gerard called for API members, who included some of the largest fossil fuel producers in the world, to “provide significant attendance” of their employees — who the public would see simply as “Energy Citizens” — at rallies against the American Clean Energy and Security Act that had passed the House of Representatives earlier that year and would have created a cap-and-trade system to incentivize US companies to reduce emissions.
“The measure of success for these events will be the diversity of the participants expressing the same message,” Gerard wrote. In addition to employees, “please include all vendors, suppliers, contractors, retirees, and others who have an interest in our success.” The climate bill died in the Senate the following year.
“I actually don’t believe that API is a bad actor in this, I really don’t,” Richard Edelman told journalist Brian Merchant in 2014. But the record speaks for itself, Merchant wrote in Vice: “Edelman . . . worked to help kill what many agreed was the single best chance the nation has ever had to pass climate legislation.”
“This information [was] not only collected but then deliberately used against the public to shape public opinion — and also without them knowing,” said Caroline Sassan, a researcher at Brown University, who has studied Energy Citizens and other fossil fuel campaigns. “That this information is being wielded by large power structures to actually work against the interest of the public . . . makes it especially damaging.”
API first hired Edelman in 2006. While it’s unclear exactly what Edelman did for the group the following year, IRS records make clear that by 2008 Edelman had become API’s single biggest contractor. Edelman earned more than $75 million from its work for API in 2008 and more than $68 million in 2009, the year that API launched Energy Citizens. (Altogether Edelman and its subsidiaries would bring in nearly $440 million from about a decade of work for API.)
In 2011, the Washington Post reported that Edelman helped API cast “REAL PEOPLE not Actors” in an Energy Citizens TV commercial highlighting “American Made Energy.”
The following year, API kicked off “Vote 4 Energy,” the next chapter of Energy Citizens, which featured “supposedly average people looking into the camera and saying ‘I vote . . . for American domestic energy’ and promoting the industry’s goals of opening up more land to drilling,” as the Center for Media and Democracy (CMD), a watchdog group, described it.
Blue Advertising, an Edelman subsidiary, created Vote 4 Energy’s “I’m an Energy Voter” campaign, describing it in a case study as an effort “unprecedented in the industry’s history.”
“What Energy Citizens did . . . was routinize citizen organizing within the oil industry,” Fordham’s Tim Wood said. “All of a sudden individual oil companies, smaller trade groups, and state-level coalitions were copying pages from the Energy Citizens playbook, often with financial or staffing support from the API.”
Energy Citizens “has set major tactical trends that the industry still follows,” Wood said. And nearly two decades after Edelman informed its clients that people were more trusting of a “person like yourself,” Energy Citizens appears still to be making use of the firm’s advice. The group’s current slogan is “Citizens Like You, Raising Their Voices.”
“A Way to Greenwash — or Trustwash — Their Own Reputation”
One of Edelman’s other undertakings for API was to help gin up public support for an extension of Keystone XL, a massive crude oil pipeline that would have allowed the Canadian tar sands producer TransCanada to move oil from Alberta to the Texas coast and, from there, ship it to refineries around the world.
The project ultimately failed, but TransCanada nevertheless hired Edelman in 2014 to craft a campaign for Keystone XL’s backup plan: Energy East, a nearly 2,900-mile proposed pipeline.
Clean Creatives found that Edelman was explicit about leveraging its trust barometer research to win over a skeptical Canadian public. “Based on Edelman’s 2014 trust data, Canadians trust employees and subject matter experts more than CEOs or board members,” Edelman told its client in a memo leaked by Greenpeace. “Our experience has shown that using subject matter experts, employees, or third-party advocates is often much more effective in establishing a connection with the public.”
Edelman noted that “messaging should leverage TransCanada’s brand wherever possible” because “Edelman’s 2014 trust data” found that Canadians were more trusting of “companies with Canadian headquarters.”
Edelman also proposed “using advocates, employees, and subject-matter experts to speak about the benefits of the project” because the trust barometer revealed that “Canadians trust employees and subject matter experts more than CEOs.”
Alison Taylor, a professor at the Stern School of Business at New York University, said that the Clean Creatives briefing is a reminder that for Edelman, the trust barometer is fundamentally about marketing. “The problem . . . is the widespread portrayal that this is some independent, think tank–type exercise,” she said.
TransCanada dropped Edelman shortly after the Greenpeace memos were published. Since then, Edelman’s clients have included oil and gas giants ExxonMobil and Shell, as well as anti-climate trade groups like the American Fuel and Petrochemical Manufacturers, the National Association of Manufacturers, and the National Mining Association.
“It’s quite clear that Edelman is, with their work, directly undermining the kinds of trust-building measures that we need to build consensus around this issue,” said Meisel at Clean Creatives. “Edelman uses the trust barometer as a way to greenwash — or trustwash — their own reputation around this issue. And it’s a way to have them position themselves as supporters of the principles of climate action, while also doing quite the opposite with their actual work.”
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