Last summer, the big PR company Edelman faced a problem that no amount of spin could resolve. Kert Davies, the former head of research for Greenpeace who now leads the Climate Investigations Center, had surveyed big public relations companies to see where they stood on the issue of climate change.
A 1930s union song, popularized by the late great Pete Seeger, asks pointedly: “Which side are you on, boys? Which side are you on?”
Since then, an insider told me, “a struggle for the soul” of Edelman as been unfolding inside the firm,which has more than 5,500 employees and reported worldwide revenues of $768m in FY2014. Some of those employees work for fossil-fuel clients who oppose efforts to curb greenhouse gas emissions and want to extract as much oil and gas from the ground as they can. Others work for companies like Unilever, Starbucks and The North Face that have lobbied for meaningful climate regulation.
Yesterday, I revisited the story and reported in the Guardian that Edelman has lost four valued staff members, all of them leaders of Edelman’s “Business and Social Purpose Practice,” and two influential clients, the We Mean Business coalition and Nike, at least in part because of its refusal to take a stand on climate change.
Does this mean that the fossil-fuel crowd inside Edelman has won? It sure looks that way, but it’s hard to know. Edelman executives declined to be interviewed for my story. No one was willing to explain what the climate position means if, indeed, it means anything at all.
This surprised me, not because Edelman execs are obligated to talk to reporters (they’re not), but because I took at face value the company’s platitudes about trust, values, corporate responsibility and openness. Company president Richard Edelman: “Transparency is not optional.” And: “We strongly urge business to take the chance to redefine value as being also about values.”
As a reporter, I’ve dealt with the Edelman firm for more than a decade; my relationships with people there have been excellent, until this climate issue came along. Shortly after I was laid off by FORTUNE in 2008, I did some writing and consulting for Edelman. I soon learned I wasn’t cut out for PR, but again, my experience with the firm was good. Call me naive, but I thought Edelman was a different kind of PR firm.
Now I can’t help but conclude that they are no different from their peers, as yesterday’s story indicates:
Some clues about where Edelman is headed can be gleaned from a new set of values and a statement of purpose published last month. The statement makes explicit the company’s willingness to work on both sides of controversial issues, including climate change:
We believe that independently held, opposing views deserve to be heard in the court of public opinion and we assert our role as a firm to being advocates for our clients.
Doing so doesn’t condone every action every client takes or imply implicit support for every position a client may adopt, but does reflect our absolute commitment and support of their right to exercise their freedom of expression.
It also grants each employee the “right to elect not to work on a piece of business that does not align with his or her personal beliefs.”
In a recent video to employees about the new statement of purpose, Matt Harrington, Edelman’s global chief operating officer, said simply: “We exist to be advocates for our clients.”
Which is OK, I guess, and wouldn’t even be a story if Edelman hadn’t tried to have it both ways on climate.
The upshot is that Edelman has lost some talented people and a couple of clients.
We’ll never know what would have happened had the company taken a different path. Instead of mumbo-jumbo about how “marketing communications” has to become “communications marketing,” Edelman could have adopted a bold, values-based position on climate change. It could have worked with its more forward-thinking fossil-fuel clients, like Shell, to bring them along on the issue. It could have positioned itself as the go-to PR shop for companies and NGOs that take sustainability seriously.
It could have walked the walk as well as talked the talk.
That’s a story I would have liked to write.