‘Drop fossil fuels,’ over 400 scientists tell PR firm handling UN climate talks

“It’s an almost comical conflict of interest that Big Oil’s spin doctors are also in charge of communications for the UN climate talks.”

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Image Credit: Kieran Dodds/The New York Times

Ahead of the COP27 UN climate summit, hundreds of scientists are calling on the PR firm in charge of the event’s communications, Hill+Knowlton, to cut ties with its fossil fuel industry clients, which include major oil companies Aramco, ExxonMobil, and Shell as well as an industry coalition called the Oil and Gas Climate Initiative.

“These clients have not taken the fundamental steps necessary to address the climate emergency and sharply rein in fossil fuels,” states an open letter to Hill+Knowlton signed by over 420 scientists. “Instead, they have used Hill+Knowlton and other PR agencies to spin, delay, and mislead, in order to continue expanding fossil fuel production and thereby increasing heat-trapping emissions.”

The open letter, organized by the Union of Concerned Scientists and the Clean Creatives campaign, comes just days before the annual UN climate talks (COP27) open in Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt. The UN Conference of the Parties (COP) climate summits convene world leaders and delegates and draws significant media attention. Egypt, as this year’s host country for the summit, has hired Hill+Knowlton Strategies to help organize the event and lead on global communications. This move has raised alarm among climate advocates and others, including scientists, working to hold accountable the fossil fuel industry and its enablers.

“It’s an almost comical conflict of interest that Big Oil’s spin doctors are also in charge of communications for the UN climate talks,” Dr. Geoffrey Supran, a Harvard researcher who studies fossil fuel disinformation and propaganda tactics, told DeSmog by email. “Time and again, research by me and my colleagues has shown how oil and gas companies and the PR firms that abet them have deployed climate disinformation to debilitate climate policy,” he added. “When the world’s leading climate scientists (IPCC) specifically called out the PR industry for obstructing climate action earlier this year, Exhibit A could have been H+K [Hill+Knowlton] — a firm that does the dirty work for none other than ExxonMobil, Chevron, Shell, and the like.”

“Letting Hill+Knowlton run communications for the climate talks is like putting the fox’s PR hack in charge of branding the chicken coop,” said Jamie Henn, co-founder of Clean Creatives, an advocacy group pushing for advertising and PR professionals to drop fossil fuel clients. “There’s nothing to stop H+K from spinning the outcomes of the talks to benefit their fossil fuel clients or sharing key intelligence with industry partners.”

Hill+Knowlton has not responded to the scientists’ letter, which was sent to the firm on Thursday, Henn told DeSmog. “The question after that is for the UN and other stakeholders to determine if we need stricter rules for who is in the room and around the table at these COPs,” he said.

Hill+Knowlton did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the scientists’ letter.

One of the oldest PR firms in the country, Hill+Knowlton is known for its notorious work with the tobacco industry in the 1950s and ‘60s to counter the scientific evidence linking smoking to lung cancer. In 1953, John W. Hill, one of the firm’s founders, met in New York with tobacco company executives, who were worried about the burgeoning evidence of smoking’s harms. During that meeting, Hill helped the tobacco industry pioneer a highly effective PR strategy — finding and raising up the loudest skeptics — in order to cast doubt on the science his clients were concerned about. Decades later, Hill’s PR firm was even a named defendant in many of the lawsuits that sprang up against tobacco companies for their efforts to downplay smoking’s health impacts.

At the same time it was employed by tobacco firms, this agency also worked with fossil fuel companies, some of which were aware more than 50 years ago that their products would have a destabilizing effect on the climate. 

“Hill+Knowlton was simultaneously and from a very early stage, also actively representing an array of oil and gas companies on issues of concern to them. And often the same account leads on the tobacco campaigns were also account leads for oil companies,” Carroll Muffett, president and CEO of the Center for International Environmental Law, explained to journalist Amy Westervelt in an episode of the Drilled podcast.

Eight men in suits and ties stand on a stage in front of a background of oil company logos and 'Oil and Gas Climate Initiative'
The Oil and Gas Climate Initiative represents some of the world’s largest oil and gas companies, whose CEOS in 2015 voiced support for a global climate agreement to be reached at that year’s UN climate talks in Paris. Credit: Oil and Gas Climate Initiative

Hill+Knowlton continues to represent fossil fuel clients to this day. The firm plays a central role in running the Oil & Gas Climate Initiative, a coalition promoting polluter-friendly climate stances whose members include oil majors like BP, Shell, ExxonMobil, and Aramco. The coalition is run out of Hill+Knowlton’s London office, Henn told DeSmog. “You couldn’t ask for a firm that’s more hand in glove with the oil companies,” he said.

The public relations industry faces increasing scrutiny over its work for clients in high-emitting sectors. Criticism of and calls for accountability for PR and advertising agencies’ role in enabling polluters to greenwash their business and exacerbate the climate crisis is coming from campaigns like Clean Creatives, from former PR industry insiders, and from the UN Secretary-General.

In September Secretary-General António Guterres called out “the massive public relations machine raking in billions to shield the fossil fuel industry from scrutiny” during a speech at the UN General Assembly. That same month, a U.S. congressional committee held a hearing examining the role of PR firms in blocking climate action.

Christine Arena, a former vice president at PR firm Edelman who now works to expose greenwashing and advocate for change in the communications industry, testified during that hearing. She told DeSmog it is “deeply concerning” that the UN climate summit is now partnering with a PR firm that has a long track record of representing fossil fuel interests.

“Hill+Knowlton is one of the top five most highly utilized PR firms for gas, oil, coal, rail, steel, and utility clients,” she said. “They have helped corporations like Chevron delegitimize opposition to their interests, including their work to help demonize human rights lawyer Steve Donziger.”

A 2021 study found that a few PR companies have an outsized influence on the public discourse shaping climate and energy policy but that that role long has been “overlooked.”

“This year’s IPCC report named advertising and PR work for fossil fuel clients as a top barrier to climate action, but thus far the PR and ad industry’s response has been negligible,” Arena added. “In the face of such delay and inaction, it is critical that scientists, researchers, lawyers, lawmakers, activists, and many others sound the alarm.”

Naomi Oreskes, a Harvard scientist and historian and co-author of the book Merchants of Doubt, is one of the scientists sounding the alarm as a signatory of the open letter. She pointed to Hill+Knowlton’s role in creating the “tobacco playbook” of disseminating disinformation to discredit science, which the oil industry also deployed to delay climate action. “It’s unconscionable to me that COP would hire them to help with climate change PR,” she said.

Supran, who has worked closely with Oreskes including on a seminal peer-reviewed study examining Exxon’s nearly 40-year history of climate communications, said Hill+Knowlton must be held accountable.

“If H+K won’t drop their fossil fuel clients, then the UN should drop H+K,” he told DeSmog. “PR companies can be part of the solution or they can be part of the problem, but they can’t be both.”

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