Paul Holmes 05 Aug 2014 // 1:46PM GMT
It’s difficult to know just how seriously to take The Guardian’s story yesterday claiming that a number of leading public relations firms “have for the first time publicly ruled out working with climate change deniers.” In fact, the only thing the story makes clear is how difficult it is to establish and enforce policies that seek to “blacklist” a category of clients. The article cites WPP, Waggener Edstrom, Weber Shandwick, Text100, and Finn Partners as firms that have pledged “not [to] represent clients who deny man-made climate change, or take campaigns seeking to block regulations limiting carbon pollution.” That might sound noble, but there’s enough ambiguity in the phrasing to justify skepticism. The fact is that very few companies “deny man-made climate change” these days. Take longtime Weber Shandwick client ExxonMobil—a company many critics see as the most regressive of the giant fossil fuel companies. ExxonMobil states clearly at its website that climate change is a real thing, and that it poses “long-term risks.” It even details the strategies it supports to minimize that risk. Nowadays, most funding for climate change denial involves “dark money,” or non-public donations to foundations and right-wing front groups such as ALEC, which has been in the forefront of lobbying against environmental regulation. And a careful parsing of the The Guardian articles suggests that the firms involved could continue to work for companies donating to ALEC (for example), as long as (a) those companies don’t publicly deny the reality of man-made global warming and (b) the firms don’t actually provide PR support to ALEC. So without doubting the sincerity of the firms involved, it is quite possible that there is less to this story than meets the eye. And that, I think, is okay. I have argued before that denying service to a group of clients based on the industry to which they belong, or even the views they hold, is a mistake. It is quite possible for PR firms to do ethical, honorable work for “black hat” industries—from oil and gas to tobacco—and it is quite possible for PR firms to do unethical, dishonorable work for environmental groups and charities. It is, for example, possible to acknowledge the reality of climate change, and the long-term damage being done to the planet as a result, but to disagree with some of the specific regulatory solutions that have been suggested. Those who do disagree should be encouraged to participate in the debate—as long as they do so honestly and openly. Of course, PR firms have the right to pick and choose their clients, and the kind of work they do for those clients. But I would much rather see firms make the case that if PR people are doing their jobs right—if they are both factually and intellectually honest—then representing controversial clients is beneficial to the democratic process, which surely works best when all voices are heard.