Arun Sudhaman 15 Nov 2021 // 4:30PM GMT
NEW YORK — Edelman has made two senior hires and unveiled a series of new commitments amid increasing pressure from climate activists to cut ties with fossil fuel companies.
The moves are part of a strategy the firm is calling 'Edelman Impact', announced today after more than 100 celebrities and influencers signed an open letter that last week called for the world's largest PR firm to drop fossil fuel clients, most notably ExxonMobil. The campaign is the latest of several Edelman-focused actions by Clean Creatives, which launched in 2020 to address the ad and PR industry’s work with fossil fuels.
Martin Whittaker, CEO of JUST Capital, is named senior advisor of Edelman Impact, while Robert Casamento becomes the firm's first-ever global head of climate. Both will work with Deanna Tallon, who recently returned to Edelman and takes on the newly-created role of managing director, sustainability.
In addition, Edelman has unveiled an immediate set of actions, which include:
- a 60-day assessment of its client portfolio across industries;
- establishing and publicizing science and values-based criteria for engagement with clients;
- joining industry peers to formalize clear criteria for climate communications;
- initiating a taskforce and a series of internal conversations about the climate emergency;
- establishing a board-level committee that will issue a recurring report on its progress; and
- submitting its target to the Science Based Target Initiative for independent validation.
“This is the next phase in Edelman’s development, and we will use the net zero emissions target by 2050 as a guide for all of our work," said Edelman CEO Richard Edelman. "Communications has a critical role in addressing the climate emergency."
Edelman told PRovoke Media that the 60-day assessment will examine all of the firm's clients across such sectors as oil and gas, agriculture, food and automotive, while also reviewing the nature of the firm's work. The firm will document its findings in a report released in early January.
While the Clean Creatives campaign has called for PR and advertising firms to drop fossil fuel clients because of their continued investment in oil and gas expansion, Edelman reiterated that his stance on working with energy companies would be governed by their commitment to transformation.
"I want Edelman to represent all clients that are part of the change process," he said. "It's as clear as day to me. I'm totally happy to speak to the activists and Iisten to their arguments. My strong advice to the comms industry is to help your clients move to a better place."
"I think the energy sector has made a significant pivot towards renewables, has also moved its portfolio towards natural gas and the urgency of this is clear," he added. "I want to make this across more sectors — aviation, agriculture, automotive, food etc. I think it's all consistent with private sector leadership and evolution."
Edelman referenced the PR industry's work over the past 18 months to drive positive change in terms of Covid-19 vaccination and the #BlackLivesMatter movement. "Our industry, in the last 18 months, has shown its ability to move society in a constructive way," he said. "It's consistent with what we've seen on diversity and inclusion. The fact is, the private sector is going to have to lead, and we definitely want to be part of that."
The commitments are part of a new set of principles that Edelman says will govern the firm's work on climate, purpose and ESG. They include working with those committed to accelerating action, putting science at the core of information, advancing best practices for communications, ensuring inclusivity of employees in the decision-making process, focusing on a just transition, and holding itself accountable through regular reporting.
Specifically, Edelman added that the firm's commitments go further than the previous refusal to work with climate deniers. "We will not take on any work that maintains the status quo, or is focused on delaying progress towards a net-zero carbon future," he wrote in a blogpost today. "We will support companies that are committed to the Paris Agreement and transparent in reporting their progress in accelerating their transition to net-zero emissions."
Edelman also believes his firm is uniquely positioned to play a significant role in helping both companies and consumers change their behaviour, a message that is as relevant for the firm's employees as for external audiences.
"Frankly, CCOs and CEOs listen to us," he said, referencing Edelman's influential Trust Barometer research. "I want [staff] to understand this is as important a mission as anything we've done. I want us to be in partnership with people who are taking the chance to move their businesses."
That status, says Edelman, may also explain why his firm has served as something of a lightning-rod for industry scrutiny. "We're the largest firm. We're the one where the founding family owns the business. And we do the Trust Barometer. It's a clear beacon of what companies are supposed to do. The idea of CEOs speaking up on issues. People are holding us to the same standard, which I welcome."
More than 20 years ago, Edelman ended his firm's lucrative relationship with the tobacco industry, but he disagrees with those who might draw parallels with big oil. "I think that energy companies provide an invaluable resource to the world, which is power," he said. "We still have a billion people without any energy. The mission of energy companies is urgent. Energy companies are making transitions; everyone wants to have a clean source of energy."
Edelman also told PRovoke Media that the firm will fund a "best practice in climate communications" unit and is currently in talks with two major universities regarding the initiative, which will be available to employees and the wider PR industry. "We have to make it easier for consumers, employees and others to make decisions about what a company is doing. We'll have that done by June, and we will lead that."
Whittaker will provide counsel to clients seeking to advance their strategies on climate, purpose and ESG. As global head of climate, Casamento will be responsible for leading the firm's climate-related offerings and programs, advising clients and also supporting Edelman’s commitment to an emissions reduction target for its operations.
"The global response to climate change has been too few, too little, and too late,” said Casamento. “Edelman has the platform, influence, and people who can, and want, to make a difference. We aim to become a leader in climate, helping clients take steps toward setting, implementing, and delivering meaningful climate ambitions."
Edelman initially pledged to stop working with coal producers and climate change deniers in 2015. That decision followed the termination of Edelman's lucrative relationship with the American Petroleum Institute.
Last month, however, The Guardian included Richard Edelman among its list of America’s top “climate villains,” 12 powerful individuals that the newspaper claims bear responsibility for climate change by enabling the industries that are part of the cause.
In September, Gizmodo reported that Edelman had been working on an Exxon ad campaign to oppose climate regulations. Richard Edelman has strongly denied that the firm's work for the company opposes climate legislation, instead focusing on job creation, economic opportunity and land access.
In March, Buzzfeed News reported that tax filings obtained by the news outlet show that in 2019 Edelman accepted more than $4 million from the American Fuel and Petrochemical Manufacturers, a major US oil trade organization known for its aggressive opposition to climate solutions.