Environmental activists find it profoundly ironic that Egypt chose to work with American public relations firm Hill and Knowlton Strategies to handle communications for the world’s largest climate summit.
Hill and Knowlton will manage briefings and news conferences at the COP27 summit, which is being held in Sharm el-Sheikh, a resort town on the Red Sea, for almost two weeks until November 18. The summit aims to mobilise a global response to the climate emergency.
However, the P.R. firm has come under fire for what opponents claim is a lengthy history of disinformation campaigns on behalf of its Big Oil clients. According to Duncan Meisel, campaign director of Clean Creatives, an organisation based in the United States that seeks to separate the P.R. industry from the fossil fuel industry, Hill & Knowlton is the primary lobbying communications agency for the oil industry.
Meisel told Source over the phone that “there is hardly any more inappropriate agency to bring on to oversee communications for a climate meeting.” Hill and Knowlton’s spokesman did not react to a request for comment, and WPP, the parent firm of Hill and Knowlton, did not respond to Source inquiries.
Hill and Knowlton are known to have worked for fossil fuel clients like Saudi Aramco, ExxonMobil, and the Oil and Gas Climate Initiative—a grouping of 12 of the biggest oil and gas firms in the world—in addition to working with significant cigarette companies in the 1950s.
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For instance, Hill and Knowlton contributed to creating commercials in 2017 and 2018 that highlighted Shell’s participation in using biofuels, including coffee waste, to power London’s buses. As the campaign garnered approximately 1,200 news items and 11.9 billion media impressions, the P.R. agency claimed it “exceeded all expectations.” However, given that Shell has substantial oil and gas operations worldwide, some have called this “greenwashing.”
636 fossil fuel lobbyists are roaming around #COP27
They, and the leaders that are beholden to them, are trying to suffocate 1.5C target, quietly and slowly until it’s too late.
Today I spoke to G20 Energy Ministers, who must end this “moral and economic madness.” pic.twitter.com/qKmhJ0yGpD
— Vanessa Nakate (@vanessa_vash) November 15, 2022
In a letter to Hill & Knowlton and WPP before COP27, more than 400 scientists expressed their disagreement with the company’s work on behalf of Big Oil customers as being “incompatible with its role leading public communications at the annual United Nations climate negotiations.”
A U.S.-based non-profit science advocacy group called the Union of Concerned Scientists encouraged Hill and Knowlton to “stop its engagement with fossil fuel clients that are worsening the climate disaster and commit completely to the climate action the world urgently needs.”
Hill and Knowlton claim on their website that it oversees public affairs and digital and brand initiatives for customers in the energy sector. In addition to oil and gas, nuclear, renewable energy, and clean technology, it claims to have “experience with Fortune 500 businesses, trade associations, government agencies, start-ups, and investors across all sectors.”
“An especially profound irony”
In charge of the non-profit Center for International Environmental Law, Carroll Muffett called Egypt’s decision to hire “one of the worst of the worst by repute” P.R. agency to handle media for the COP27 conference “profoundly unsettling” and “remarkably instructional.”
Muffett told Source over the phone that “any P.R. agency that is actively pushing to promote [a] narrative of continued fossil fuel expansion under any conditions is a problem.” On the other hand, he added, “there is a profound irony of Hill & Knowlton being a vital voice for the global climate negotiations, given their decades-long track record of supporting and aiding corporate fraud and corporate misconduct.”
A request for comment from Source was not immediately answered by either the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change or Egypt’s COP chair. It comes at a time when global efforts to stop the development of fossil fuels are gaining ground.
Last week, Tuvalu, an island nation in the South Pacific, made history by becoming the first nation to use the U.N.’s main climate negotiations to advocate for a treaty banning the expansion of fossil fuels. The plan has recently received support from the Vatican, the European Parliament, and the World Health Organization.
To date, only a few tiny nations have supported the project, and the fossil fuel sector has frequently pushed to emphasise the significance of energy security in the switch to renewables. Undoubtedly, the primary cause of the current climate problem is the use of fossil fuels like coal, oil, and gas.
Because communications companies have strived to uphold the maxim that “the best P.R. is invisible P.R.,” the role that P.R. firms and ad agencies play in “greenwashing” fossil fuels has often gone unnoticed. But recently, Antonio Guterres, the secretary-general of the United Nations, denounced what he called the “huge public relations machine raking in billions to hide the fossil fuel business from scrutiny.”
In an address to the U.N. general assembly on September 20, Guterres said, “Lobbyists and spin doctors have spewed dangerous falsehoods, just as they did for the cigarette industry decades before.” Fossil fuel interests need to focus less on preventing a public relations disaster and more on preventing a global one.
An apparent conflict of interest
P.R. agencies’ role in assisting the world’s most profitable oil and gas companies to improve their environmental image and thwart climate action was first thoroughly documented in a peer-reviewed study published late last year in the journal Climatic Change. Discovered that for more than three decades, the biggest names in energy have relied on P.R. firms and marketing agencies to craft their public messaging.
It was troubling to see the United Nations Climate Change Conference choose to work with Hill and Knowlton, according to Christine Arena, a former executive vice president at American PR powerhouse Edelman. She left the company in 2015 over the company’s stance on climate change. Christine Arena made this statement to Source.
For clients in the gas, oil, coal, and utility industries, such as Saudi Aramco, Exxon, and the Oil and Gas Climate Initiative, to mention a few, Hill & Knowlton is among the top five most frequently used P.R. firms, according to Arena.
This blatant conflict of interest raises the possibility that the same talking lines on fossil fuels will continue to dominate the conversation at the most critical climate event of the year. “Equally troubling is that both H&K and its parent firm WPP stay mute in the face of growing calls for responsibility,” she continued.