"Oil companies haven’t acted alone in deceiving the public and stopping climate action. They’ve had a major assist from some of the world’s most profitable public relations companies, a relationship that has gone largely unexamined until now. A study released Tuesday in the journal Climatic Change is the first to thoroughly document the role PR firms have had in helping fossil fuel companies finesse their public image and manipulate science to fit their messaging.
PR agencies and ad campaigns are responsible for many of the terms people still use today to make fossil fuels seem less bad than they are, including “clean coal,” “renewable natural gas,” “coal country,” and “carbon footprint.” Despite their heavy influence in propping up the industry, PR firms’ work is designed to be invisible; firms don’t always advertise the work they’re doing or which clients are paying them, especially when it comes to sensitive topics like the fate of the planet. Compiling the research for this study and accompanying summary involved exhaustively combing through industry news, announcements, case studies, and other materials, including years of past issues of PR and ad industry trade magazines.
“It was an enormous amount of real drudge work,” said Bob Brulle, the lead author of the study and a visiting professor at Brown University.
The result of that work is a compelling account spanning decades of how PR firms have worked hand-in-hand with polluters to craft companies’ images and messages. Many of the firms use what the study’s authors call “front groups,” or employing paid or unpaid outside actors to promote certain messaging. It’s akin to astroturfing, which companies sometimes employ to appear to have more support than they do. The firm DDC Advocacy, for instance, ran two front groups for the American Petroleum Institute ,the industry’s leading lobbying group, between 2012 and 2017 to give the appearance of a grassroots group of Americans united in favor of fracking."