Edelman’s climate problem

magnifying-glass-valuesLast 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.

Edelman waffled. The company published a position on climate change that raised as many questions as it answered. Last August, I wrote a story about the issue for the Guardian that began like this:

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. 

Richard Edelman, in Davos
Richard Edelman, in Davos

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.

PR firm Edelman has more than a PR problem

640px-Edelman_Logo_ColorI’m an admirer of Edelman, one of the world’s biggest and most respected PR firms, and I’m friendly with a number of people who work there. The firm has been ahead of the curve on corporate-responsibility issues, managing effective campaigns for the likes of GE and Walmart. Richard Edelman, who runs the place,  approached me about coming to work for Edelman after I was laid off from Fortune at the end of 2008 and, while I had some great conversations with their senior execs in New York, I ultimately decided to stick with journalism.  (Disclosure: I did a very limited amount of consulting work with Edelman in 2009. It didn’t suit me well.)

Part of the problem with big PR firms — the same goes for big law firms and accounting firms — is that, for the most part, they need to take whatever work comes in the door if they want to keep their door open and keep their people employed. (Edelman, which is privately held, has more than 5,000 employees in 65 offices around the world. This need to grow is even more intense at the publicly-owned PR shops.) Some of the work that comes in will be unseemly. Lately, this has become a problem for Edelman, and for its reputation–as I wrote today for Guardian Sustainable Business.

Here’s how my story begins:

A 1930s union song, popularized by the late great Pete Seeger, asks pointedly: “Which side are you on, boys? Which side are you on?”

On the issue of climate change, that question now confronts Edelman, one of the world’s largest and most admired public relations companies.

In the wake of a survey of the top 25 global PR firms by the Guardian and the Climate Investigations Center, released 4 August, [Edelman said:]

Edelman fully recognizes the reality of, and science behind, climate change, and believes it represents one of the most important global challenges facing society, business and government today. To be clear, we do not accept client assignments that aim to deny climate change.

Beyond that, for nearly a decade, Edelman has built a reputation as the go-to PR firm for corporate sustainability by managing campaigns for the likes of GE (“Ecomagination”), Walmart and Unilever. Richard Edelman, the firm’s high-profile president and CEO, blogs about having dinner at the home of Jeffrey Sachs, his Harvard classmate and a noted climate hawk, and quotes Sachs as saying that “the world is on a very dangerous path.”

And yet.

The Edelman firm works for the American Petroleum Institute, the Washington-based trade association for the oil and gas industry, which opposed the 2009 Waxman-Markey climate change bill favored by some energy companies and utilities, supports the Keystone XL pipeline and exploration of the Canadian tar sands and says, in limp language on its website, that burning fossil fuels “may be helping to warm our planet.”

Until recently, Edelman worked for the Alliance for Northwest Jobs and Exports, a coalition of coal, mining and railroad interests that promotes coal-export terminals in the Pacific Northwest that are strongly opposed by environmental groups. Another Edelman client is said to be ALEC, a conservative lobbying group that opposes regulations on carbon pollution. GE, Walmart and Unilever are among about 70 companies that have reportedly cut their ties with ALEC, although not over the climate issue.

So … which side are you on, boys?

Elsewhere in the press, including in The Times the other day, this has been covered as a PR “faux pas” for the big PR firm. That’s accurate: Edelman bungled its initial reply to the Guardian survey, after which Richard Edelman made matters worse by calling a reporter and saying that a senior exec at the company had been fired as a result. Embarrassing? Sure, but we all make mistakes.

The harder and more important challenge for Edelman and others will be to navigate the climate controversy going forward. The firm cannot be seen as a “thought leader” (ugh, hate that phrase) on corporate sustainability and work on behalf of coal exports or the American Petroleum Institute, which has opposed regulation of greenhouse gases.

Will Edelman have to give up its fossil fuel clients, in a Bill McKibben-style divestment? I think not. Just about all of us depend on fossil fuels to get us around and heat our homes, so we’re not about to give up fossil fuels. But I do think that Edelman (and others) may  have to make distinctions between those fossil-fuel companies that are willing to be part of a constructive solution to the climate crisis–Shell, say, or BP in its better days–and those companies or trade associations that want only to obstruct. That’s not an easy distinction to make, but so it goes.

I had a couple of interesting reactions today to my Guardian story, both on background. This came in via email from a former Edelman employee:

I’ve personally struggled with this a lot….I worked really hard on sustainability for Walmart, GE and others while at Edelman and truly believed in our work. At the time the support was top-down from people like Richard Edelman and Leslie Dach, but once Leslie left, the DC office took on API and dove into the “energy” space. I’ve been very uncomfortable with the DC office’s transformation and am personally glad to see their hypocrisy being exposed. You can’t work both sides of the issue.

Actually, many PR firms, law firms and accountants do work both sides of the issue, on the grounds that everyone is entitled to a flack/lawyer/accountant. The trouble with that is their companies then don’t stand for anything beyond providing service to whoever pays the bills.

I asked an Edelman friend/colleague for a reaction, and got this reply:

 I am glad to work at one of a very few large PR companies who have exclusions that include climate change denial in addition to the “usual” easy targets of tobacco and guns. But the tough part comes in when it deals with how we implement that exclusion. And that is the positive from all of this – we are now having a really robust and tough internal discussion on this.

 I actually do think that Edelman is one of the few large agencies or service companies where we can develop a true leadership position on this. It is very much a values driven company and if we can’t get it right here then I don’t have much hope for public companies.

What an interesting test of a company’s values.

For business, is health the new “green”?

A decade ago, few people would have thought that major banks, retailers or Internet companies would need environmental strategies. Yet today, they do–Bank of America has promised to invest $20 billion on sustainability initiatives over 10 years,  Wal-Mart’s aggressive environmental efforts are well known and eBay, while selling second-hand stuff, touts the idea of sustainable consumption.

This is largely because expectations of business are always rising. To pick another example: When I was a kid, we didn’t think about how or where or under what conditions our sneakers or T-shirts were made. Now brands that sell footwear or apparel maintain expensive and extensive efforts to monitor their supply chains, to avoid possible scandal around child labor or unsafe factories. Just as Nike or Gap.

So what’s the next big issue that companies need to worry about?

Edelman-Health-Barometer2The Edelman public relations firm says it’s health. Last month, after surveying 15,000 people in 11 countries, Edelman released what it calls its Health Engagement Barometer. The firm says health is emerging as a major corporate responsibility issue, not just for the obvious suspects–drug companies, insurance companies, the fast-food industry–but for companies of all kinds.

Of those surveyed, 69% said that

business should be as engaged in maintaining and improving personal and public health as it is in maintaining and improving the environment.

Respondents to the survey said they would be more willing to trust, do business with and even invest in companies that are engaged in health issues–by, for example, making available products that promote health, communicating the health risks of their products, helping their workers become healthier, helping address obesity or contributing to global health.

“Health is joining environment as a major sustainability issue and therefore a major issue for businesses that want to prosper in the future,” says Nancy Turett, global president for health at Edelman. [click to continue…]