NEW YORK — The launch this week of a high-profile influencer campaign calling on Edelman to drop fossil fuel clients — most notably ExxonMobil — begs the question of whether the PR industry should banish big energy like it did big tobacco.

As far as climate activists are concerned — including the 100-plus celebrities and influencers who signed the open letter to Edelman published Monday — the answer is a resounding yes; working with big energy makes agencies complicit in the ill effects of fossil fuels, the number one cause of climate change, they say.

And that holds true even for an agency working with an energy company on its renewables or business transformation agenda, says Clean Creatives campaign director Duncan Meisel, because that’s not really where the fossil fuel industry is spending most of its time or money.

On a new PRovoke Media Podcast, Meisel said that, for all the talk of building a sustainable future, the vast majority of energy company investment remains focused on oil and gas expansion. On top of that, the sector is already responsible for 75% of the world’s carbon emissions, making the prospect of future growth a very dangerous thing.

“The role of agencies for their clients is to help their clients grow their business. And the planet cannot afford to have the business of fossil fuel industries grow,” Meisel said. “It’s simply incompatible with a safe future.”

Clean Creatives claimed its first win in 2020, its inaugural year, when Porter Novelli ended its relationship with the American Public Gas Association, with the agency saying that its work for the organization was incongruous with its “increased focus and priority on addressing climate justice.”

Yet the industry's biggest players have yet to follow suit.

Edelman, for one, appears unwilling to concede to calls to cut ties with its clients in the energy business, even after it pledged to stop working with coal producers and climate change deniers in 2015. The world's largest PR firm reiterated its stance on Tuesday, the day after the launch of the influencer campaign — whose high-profile backers include Ta-Nehisi Coates, Amy Poehler and Amy Schumer — by affirming its commitment to sustainability as well as climate change solutions.

“As a firm, we believe that climate change is one of today’s most important global challenges, and addressing it will require unprecedented collaboration across all institutions and sectors. To that end, we are focused on helping our clients across all industries advance their own sustainability commitments,” Edelman said in a statement.

“We believe it is important for us to have a seat at the table with our clients and that we have an obligation to do more — not less — work related to climate change. We do not accept client assignments that aim to deny climate change,” the statement said.

This is not a new issue for Edelman, whose work for ExxonMobil in particular has attracted scrutiny. But Edelman is far from alone. The oil industry employs numerous PR consultancies, including many of the industry's biggest players. And few of them appear ready to cut out big energy in the manner that they once walked away from tobacco which, in many cases, was precipitated by healthcare clients stipulating that they cannot also work for tobacco sector companies, or the work they do for NGOs and anti-smoking initiatives.

The reasons for this stance vary. To begin with, the world remains highly dependent on fossil fuel companies. No matter how much we’d like to be driving electric cars and tapping into solar energy, the reality is we are just not there yet.

Yet while big oil is late to the table in promoting alternative energy sources, communicators say these companies have little choice but to step up their efforts given increased pressure from investors, shareholders, government, and the public. If that is the challenge, there is a case to be made that PR firms can be a productive part of that solution, presuming they are willing to question and counsel, rather than simply provide cover for policies and actions that oppose climate change action.

“There’s no question that 20 years ago Exxon and most of the Seven Sisters were involved in anti-climate change communications. There is no question that they were, from an activist’s perspective, on the wrong side,” said Levick chairman & CEO Richard Levick, whose past clients include Chevron and Citgo. “But flash forward a decade and a half, and they are starting to move in the right direction.”

Communicators also said that working with an energy company — or any company that has a mix of businesses under its umbrella — comes down to how any such relationship sits with employees, and whether it is in line with an agency's ethos. “In the end, you have to make one of those calls,” an agency leader said, on condition of anonymity.

And then there is the industry’s proclivity for working with clients that raise ethical questions — oppressive regimes, arms companies and big sugar, in addition to tobacco and energy among others. Much of that can be tied to the belief that doing ethical work, even for unethical clients, can lead to reform and better behavior. PR agencies must also reckon with how this kind of work affects their own image on a worldwide stage.

If you ask Meisel, that gray area shouldn’t exist. He said there is “frustration” that people in PR and ad agencies believe it’s possible to “engage with fossil fuel companies and get results.”

“There is a reluctance to look at the way that campaigns can contribute to the climate emergency, and I think that’s the conversation we need to have,” he said. “This is not a bunch of unruly activists. This is a real business decision agencies are going to face about working with a business that’s facing legal challenges, regulatory challenges, economic headwinds … and we are just moving to a place where this has to be taken more seriously by agencies.”

Industry leaders, however, say there is not a lot to gain from walking away. “You’re always better having a seat at the table than not having one,” Levick said, adding that being part of the process does reap results.

“There is nothing more wonderful than when a senior oil executive comes up to you and says we would like your input in going beyond petroleum,” he said.