Corporate PR & Global Warming – the Big Con

Image of a fire on a hill.

Image by Matt Palmer.

Switch off your light for an hour at home, the environmentalist World Wildlife Funds asks of you. Since 2007, WWF has conducted a global campaign to convince individuals to turn off their lights for one hour, on one day of the year. It seeks to individualize global warming while diverting attention away from the big polluters.

Moving the big polluters out of the crime scene by focusing on the individual is a proven PR or public relations (read: propaganda) con, a manipulative trick. It is a cunning move by industry – in short, a con. The term con goes back to the French word contekier – as in discord and to be in strife.

What the con of corporate PR does, is simply manipulation. This is corporate PR’s raison d’être anyway. It is a fraud, a swindle, a ploy to hoodwink the public, or as the German philosopher Adorno would say, it is a prime example of mass deception. Corporate PR wants you to believe that toxic sludge is good for you.

It follows the deceptive ideology of “do your bit”. To achieve this, WWF’s campaign was invented by a commercial advertising company called Leo Burnett that worked for Heinz, McDonalds, and Philip Morris – which of course, the tobacco corporation had nothing to do with the fact that during the 20th century,

there were 100 million tobacco-related deaths

and it is anticipated that as many as 1 billion people

will die from tobacco in the current century.

Back at the climate change con, the feel-good Earth Hour Campaign – generously supported by the global good-doing elite – aims to convey a symbolic “con” message that individual actions will protect the natural environment.

Similarly, corporate PR has convinced many that there is something called clean coal, then there is also renewable natural gas, and renewable nuclear energy – a French favorite. Yet, the best of all is that there isn’t global warming or global heating – just climate change.

And of course, there is no planetary death machine that is set in motion by capitalism moving us towards the capitalocene with the climate hell, as our final destination.

Corporate PR firms effectively have made sure that the insane concepts of PR have become taken-for-granted points in the climate change debate. In a further sign of Madness and Civilization, they shape the public debate on global warming.

We have known the influence of corporations like ExxonMobil, Koch Enterprises, etc. on the debate. Their official, not so official, and dark money pay for reactionary think tanks like the Heartland Institute, the Competitive Enterprise Institute, and many more. Some of them even run public opinions manipulating astroturfing campaigns.

Unfortunately for us but very fortunately for them, these shady PR agencies are hardly ever examined. Their influence remains nebulous and hazy. Not surprisingly, the “work”(!) of PR firms requires that they remain invisible keeping a low profile when it comes to creating unscrupulous communications efforts – read: manipulation efforts .

Yet, the worst offenders are corporate PR firms such as Edelman, Glover Park, Cerrell, and Ogilvy. They seek dominance in the public sphere by wanting to manipulate our understanding of public issues like global warming.

Over the last century, PR has become increasingly dominated by a handful of large PR firms. It follows the concentration of economic power in the hands of a few corporations. This enables such well-resourced corporations, and their PR–henchmen to become dominant advocates on global warming.

Instead of a democratic forum, the public sphere has become increasingly dominated by powerful PR firms and corporate mass-media. This is often ideologically camouflaged as free speech.

Corporations and their PR firms have a distinct advantage based on sufficient economic, political, organizational, and ideological capacities to generate publicity campaigns on behalf of corporate interests.

Much of this goes back to Poison Ivy – Ivy Lee – a manipulative press agent doing the dirty work for John D. Rockefeller and Standard Oil. Yet, the true mastermind of mass deception remains Edward Bernays.

One of their early tasks was to fight the publication of biologist Rachel Carson’s research on the toxic legacy of chemical pesticides.

Immediately, chemical corporations and PR firms launched a massive PR campaign to sow doubt about Carson’s methods and findings. Today, we know them as merchants of doubt. Ever since, be it tobacco, sugar, global warming, etc., sowing doubt has become a proven method of corporate PR.

Between the early 1970s and the mid-1990s, corporate PR firms have cranked up advocacy structures to anticipate, fight, prevent, and possibly destroy environmental policies. Their power and influence can never be matched by underfunded environmental movement and NGOs.

Given the colossal uncompetitive advantage gained through their PR campaigns, it has become rather common practice for corporations to employ PR firms to conduct misinformation and disinformation campaigns.

These politico-manipulative campaigns constitute major investments of corporate resources ranging from $10 million to in excess of $100 million a year for a single PR campaign. It is corporate propaganda with the single-minded and very ideological purpose of bringing a so-called target audience (read: us) to adopt to a pre-conceived attitude and belief that has been selected well in advance by a corporation.

The idea is to frame or reframe environmental issues, so that – even the attitudes of social movement on global warming – become linked to individual behavior rather than the toxic behavior of corporation – the Toxic 100!

To do that, a complex network of organizations, think tanks, public relations firms has been formed to develop and disseminate accidental misinformation, and worse, deliberate disinformation about global warming. Beyond that, the agency of corporate polluters also has a significant impact on media coverage.

For example, there once even was a PR campaign in which – and in partnership with WWF – the American Cattleman’s Association promotes the consumption of beef.

Yet, the Global Climate Coalition – a leading group opposing global warming – once hired E. Bruce Harrison – the Godfather of anti-environmental propaganda.

Until 2020, The top 20 corporations running such anti-environmental PR campaigns are: General Electric, Royal Dutch Shell, BP, Siemens, ExxonMobil, Chevron, Mobil Oil, Edison Electric Institute, CSX Transportation, American Iron and Steel Institute, National Grid, American Petroleum Institute, Union Pacific, Natural Resources Defense Council, Southern Company, Duke Energy, Exelon, Enron, Nature Conservancy, and ConEd.

Meanwhile, the top-20 PR firms working for them are: Edelman, Caplan, Weber Shandwick, Cerrell, Hill & Knowlton, Burson Cohn & Wolfe, Ogilvy, Ketchum, Charles Ryan, DF King, Jasculca Terman, GCI Group, Potomac Comms, Kamber, Kearns & West, Manning Selvage & Lee, Porter Novelli, Rowland Communications, Singer Associates, and The Marino Organization.

In the end, it is safe to say that PR firms are major con artists in distorting, framing, and manipulating the issue of global warming. They ran short-lived propaganda campaigns as well as misinformation and disinformation crusades that run over for many years. The influence of PR firms in virtually all industry sectors is widespread.

Yet, the euphemistically labeled utilities sector shows the greatest use of PR firms. Beyond that, there is a marked concentration of PR firms in each sector of the industry. PR firms tend to specialize in “representing” specific sectors. Meanwhile, a handful of larger PR firms are widely engaged in political-manipulative activities.

Overall, their PR campaigns seek to crank up the image of an entire sector and its polluting corporations. While the direct political impact of their campaigns is hard to determine, they have, nevertheless, a sustained cultural impact pushing ideas like coal country and carbon footprint. Today, the latter is taken-for-granted – a stunning success for corporate PR.

What corporate PR certainly does is shifting the debate. They do this by framing global warming in the ways corporations want. This impacts on environmental policy making. To achieve that, many PR campaigns aim to shift public opinion – directly or indirectly.

Given what is available to the public, it remains virtually impossible to connect specific PR companies with specific manipulative PR campaigns. In other words, the system is set up to protect the system – the system of capitalism.

Clearly, the setting up of effective PR by corporations has become an essential part of virtually all efforts to manipulate climate policy. Being able to successfully circulate the corporate narrative allows anti-environmental PR to set the terms that can define the debate to favor the planetary death machine. Worse, corporate PR firms can be expected to continue to keep the foot on the accelerator until we have reached climate hell.

The usual suspects of ExxonMobil, Koch Enterprises, the Heartland Institute, the Competitive Enterprise Institute, Edelman, Glover Park, Cerrell, and Ogilvy will make sure that the captions on a New Yorker cartoon become true. It read, yes, the planet got destroyed. But for a beautiful moment in time, we created a lot of value for shareholders!

Thomas Klikauer is the author of German Conspiracy Fantasies.