NEW YORK — Edelman has identified 20 emissions-intensive clients that it will start discussions with regarding a series of litmus tests that determine whether the firm will walk away based on an incompatible approach to climate change.

While Edelman CEO Richard Edelman would not disclose specific client details, he noted that the companies are drawn from "emissions-intensive" sectors, including energy, agriculture, industrials, automotive, travel and tourism, and hotels. 

The move is the result of a 60-day assessment of Edelman's client portfolio, which the firm announced in November amid increasing pressure from climate activists to cut ties with fossil fuel companies. The review covered 330 clients, and was led by Edelman's new global climate chair Robert Casamento.

The process, said sustainability specialist Casamento, focused on "what our clients say and do and promise to do," along with Carbon Disclosure Project reporting and scores, the latest IPCC reports, and industry emissions pathway analysis such as the International Energy Agency’s (IEA) Net Zero by 2050 roadmap for the global energy sector. 

The result, said Edelman, is a series of "litmus tests" that will determine whether Edelman can continue working with some of its clients, which include major oil companies such as ExxonMobil and Shell. These include acceptance of the Paris Agreement, "accelerated action towards net zero," and "a broader contextual view of the communications that we do," said Edelman.

The criteria form part of an updated six-point set of operating principles that aim to guide Edelman's work as it relates to climate action. "We can do more on context, beyond the product benefit," said Edelman. "We can do a lot to push clients to net zero and the Paris Agreement, but also specific actions on supply chains."

In particular, the review found instances where clients had no public position on the Paris Agreement or no emissions data readily available. A few clients "do not have net zero ambitions or goals," said Casamento, who also found "a few examples of communications that were susceptible to challenge and criticism by others," and "gaps in staff understanding of climate issues."

Those gaps will form the basis of Edelman's attempts to only work with companies that are taking "meaningful action" towards "credible net zero goals"  and are committed to "honest and transparent communication with all stakeholders."

"If we can't agree, we're going to part ways with clients," added Edelman. "We are in discussions with clients from Monday."

Edelman's climate action plan comes after more than 100 celebrities and influencers signed an open letter calling 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 industries' work with fossil fuels.

A recent New York Times article, meanwhile, detailed disquiet among agency employees about Edelman's refusal to stop working with energy companies, a stance he reiterated today. 

"I feel very strongly that we have made the case for a set of principles, a robust discussion with clients about whether we are the right partner," responded Edelman. "Also, I want to attract people to Edelman who want to be the change people, and we're the right people to enable that change. I want them to look at this as a very serious revolution of our business, our responsibility, and their opportunity to do something."

Responding ahead of Edelman's announcement today, Clean Creatives campaign director Duncan Meisel reiterated calls for the firm to drop all fossil fuel clients that plan to expand their production of oil, gas or coal, and end work that "perpetuates climate deception" and "hinders climate legislation."

"If Edelman wants to be trusted on climate, they need to drop fossil fuels,” said Meisel. "None of the major oil companies have a credible plan to stop production and meet the goals of the Paris Agreement. If they were serious about transitioning to clean energy they would have hired engineers, not PR people."

"You have to be in the room," said Casamento, referring to the Clean Creatives charge that PR work often serves as a diversion of attention from fossil fuel expansion. "Everyone agrees we need more renewables. But you have to appreciate there's a certain energy base that needs to transition. There are areas of consensus that are legitimate transitional pathways to net zero. It's not as black and white as some people make it out to be."

Edelman also provided further details of the climate action plan announced in November, which aims to ensure that the firm helps clients reach a net zero future. 

"We're not interested in working with companies to preserve the status quo," he said. "We want to be helping them change, by improving their mix and improving their carbon footprint. I don't agree with the Clean Creatives analysis. You have a lot of advertising people who are not in our business — it's easy for them to observe without having a basis."

The firm is bringing in climate change consultancy Systemiq to better understand how different industries develop the best pathways towards climate action, and how to best use communications to support those efforts.

The firm has also set up an internal climate review panel, which will advise on all assignments relating to carbon-intensive industries or climate communications work. It is also investing in mandatory climate change communications training for all staff, following its own research finding that more than 50% of people do not trust climate communications.

In addition, Edelman is finalizing the creation of an independent council of climate experts from outside the company to provide guidance on strategy, assignments, and client situations of concern. The group will review the results of Edelman’s assessment and work with the agency on client suitability and its output.

Edelman is also calling on other agencies to join the effort through a Global Climate Communications Council to support the implementation of Article 12 of the Paris Agreement through education, training, public awareness and public access to information.

The idea has already received support from the likes of WPP CEO Mark Read and former Young & Rubicam Group global CEO David Sable, who has expressed interest in running the group, Edelman said.

“We can really drive this,” he said. "It’s not an advertising issue, it’s a communications issue.”

The agency will also report annually on its own progress addressing climate change, which will include steps such as reducing air travel, fewer company meetings and smaller office space.

Edelman affirmed his commitment to the far-reaching effort, calling driving action addressing climate change as "the challenge of the rest of my career."

"We've spent the last 60 days productively and we will spend the next 10 years beavering away on this," he said. "We have to get this right."

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 year, 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.

Additional reporting by Diana Marszalek