In 2021, PR agencies faced a historic wave of questions from clients, staff, and the public about their work with major polluting clients. 

Until now, PR agencies with climate agendas have engaged with fossil fuel polluters under the assumption that maintaining a seat at the table allowed them leverage to help steer climate policy. It’s clear that strategy has not succeeded: production of fossil fuels that cause climate change continues to rise, and investment in climate solutions by oil majors hovers at an industry average of just 1% of capital expenditures.

In 2022, agencies have an opportunity to seize the narrative and pursue a new strategy by engaging in an honest evaluation of their work with fossil fuel polluters, and ending work with clients that refuse to bring themselves in line with accurate, up-to-date strategies for ending the climate emergency. Cutting off engagement with polluters as long as their business models threaten the planet maximizes the leverage of agencies with valuable talent that companies need to grow, and makes certain that your team isn’t engaging in reputationally or legally risky greenwash.

For agencies looking at reviewing their policies towards polluting clients, there are several key stakeholders and standards that you can use to evaluate your clients.

The first standard that agencies must consider is the unbelievably urgent science of climate change. In 2021, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a project of 234 leading climate scientists from 66 countries described the climate emergency as a “red alert for humanity.” Just the top 10 weather disasters cost governments, companies, and communities over $170 billion dollars. Behind that figure is a real human toll: fires that destroyed homes, storm surge that wiped out city blocks, and extreme heat that killed the elderly, poor, and sick.

Global Net Zero targets are designed to end these disasters, but as long as fossil fuel companies are increasing production of coal, oil, and gas, there is no way to meet them. Reductions in fossil fuel production and consumption is the bedrock of serious climate policy, and the time in which we must achieve those reductions is rapidly closing.

A serious policy review by agencies should use respected, independent scientific authorities such as the IPCC, the International Energy Agency, and the UN Climate Champion’s Race to Zero as the key starting point for evaluating their clients’ commitment to Net Zero. Unless client climate plans match the urgency, seriousness, and specificity of the pathways offered by these authorities, they should not be part of your agency’s client mix.

Second, agencies should engage in serious conversation with their staff - particularly younger staff that have the greatest anxiety about the climate crisis. As the PR and ad industry reckons with the ‘great resignation,’ adopting strong standards for climate action by your clients is a powerful way to attract and retain young talent that wants to see their agencies align with their deeply-held values.

Last, agencies should take into account the goals and policies of their clients who are already leading on climate action. A close look at the goals of companies trying to transform their materials, products, and business models to align with a global Net Zero goal can demonstrate how to approach the clients that have spent decades fighting climate action.

Clients that want to decarbonize their businesses benefit from policies that promote clean electricity, electrified transportation, and reduced government support for fossil fuel production and products. All of these policies are routinely opposed by fossil fuel companies, who call on agencies to help lead that opposition.

A world in which the fossil fuel business model succeeds is one where sustainable business models are likely to fail, and agencies can use the expertise of leading brands to better understand the sustainability landscape, and how fossil fuel companies distort it to maximize their production of coal, oil, and gas at the expense of sustainable business.

The recent controversies that have affected major agencies provide an opportunity to reflect, and change course. By looking to scientific authorities, engaged staff, and leading clients, agencies can better understand why retaining fossil fuel clients is a risk to the planet, and their bottom line, and choose to maximize their leverage to encourage real transportation by walking away from the companies that are doing the most harm. 

Duncan Meisel is campaign director at Clean Creatives.