The UK’s Climate Innovation Forum named global PR agency Weber Shandwick as its “official communications partner,” despite the agency recently holding or continuing to hold contracts with at least eight oil and gas companies, an oil financier, and an industry lobby group.
On Wednesday, June 28, the climate conference convened in London as part of London Climate Action Week, hosted by the UK-based global event organizer Climate Action in partnership with the UK Department for Energy Security and Net Zero. The Climate Innovation Forum describes the UK’s net-zero transition as an “urgent existential imperative and a significant commercial opportunity.” Climate Action did not respond to a request for comment.
Owned by holding group Interpublic (IPG), Weber Shandwick led the messaging for the Climate Innovation Forum, which aimed to bring together “700 senior public and private sector decision makers to help turbocharge our transition to net zero.” Weber Shandwick also held a roundtable at the conference called “Communicating Authentically about the Climate Crisis,” which it described, via a LinkedIn post, as providing “an off-record platform for professionals involved in the transition to net-zero, addressing the opportunities and challenges of effective and authentic communication regarding the climate crisis.”
However, Weber Shandwick took on this role for the high profile climate forum, which featured a visit from King Charles, while the agency delivers communications projects for numerous oil and gas interests.
“The biggest barriers to ‘effective and authentic’ climate communication are agencies like Weber Shandwick that help fossil fuel polluters mislead the public about climate change,” Duncan Meisel, executive director for climate advocacy campaign Clean Creatives, told DeSmog by email.
According to Clean Creatives and DeSmog research, the PR firm’s recent client list includes ExxonMobil, Shell, Eni, TotalEnergies, Equinor, Gas Natural Fenosa, Repsol, Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (ADNOC), Arab Petroleum Investments Corporation (APIC), and the Oil Companies International Marine Forum. At least some of these oil and gas interests have employed communications tactics or messages that seem to oppose net zero policies, or support the delay of such policies.
ExxonMobil, for example, recently told investors who were pushing for higher standards of climate reporting that the International Energy Agency’s (IEA) net zero emissions vision (NZE) for 2050 was too unlikely to consider evaluating in financial statements: “It is clear that the IEA NZE does not, by the scenario authors’ own assessment, meet the level of likelihood required to be considered in our financial statements…It is highly unlikely that society would accept the degradation in global standard of living required to permanently achieve a scenario like the IEA NZE.”
The CEO of Shell, meanwhile, has spoken out against lowering the production and exploration of oil and gas: “Oil and gas will continue to play a crucial role in the energy system for a long time to come,” Wael Sawan recently told investors. “It is critical that the world avoids dismantling the current energy system faster than we are able to build the clean energy system of the future.” This messaging flies in the face of guidance from the International Energy Agency, which has warned that all new fossil fuel exploration is incompatible with reaching net zero carbon emissions by 2050.
While major oil companies have rushed to announce net-zero policies, a 2021 scientific analysis suggests the industry’s business model and executive pay packages will prevent the kind of follow-through required to wean it off its core products. Net-zero pledges are “part of an old playbook to retain social license to operate and retain loyalty and trust,” study author Richard Heede of Climate Accountability Institute told DeSmog at the time. “None of these companies want government policy and carbon regulations.”
This latest example of conflicted interest in Weber Shandwick’s client projects follows the firm’s recent PR accolades for work relating to renewable energy. Last week at the prestigious Cannes Lions Festival of Creativity in France, Weber Shandwick received three awards for their “Turnstile Turbines” campaign. Delivered on behalf of Spanish energy company Iberdrola, the campaign raised awareness of the firm’s position as a wind energy producer by building wind turbine look-alikes — that actually produced energy as commuters passed through the turnstiles — in a Paris metro station. The work earned a Silver Brand Experience & Activation award, a Bronze Sustainable Development Goals award, and a Bronze Outdoor Lion award.
Yet some of Weber Shandwick’s other clients, including Shell and ExxonMobil, have been known to cast doubt on the potential of wind energy as recently as 2015 or, through industry lobbying associations, to help fund groups currently campaigning against offshore wind projects in the misguided name of saving whales.
The PR agency defended its work with the Climate Innovation Forum, as well as its client base more broadly. “We are helping tackle the climate crisis by partnering with clients at the forefront of sustainability to advance their work and impact globally, ensuring that every client we take on is in accord with our principles, mitigating our emissions, and engaging with a variety of organizations that are all accelerating the transition to cleaner energy,” an unnamed spokesperson for Weber Shandwick told DeSmog by email.
Weber Shandwick has also been providing PR support for the state-owned Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (ADNOC) as recently as May. This comes as COP28 host United Arab Emirates (UAE) continues to come under fire for its choice of ADNOC CEO Sultan Al-Jaber as President of the upcoming climate conference. Activists and more than a hundred U.S. and European Union politicians have slammed Al-Jaber’s leadership as a clear conflict of interest. With this backdrop of controversy, the UAE has struggled to retain a PR agency to manage communications and messaging around the event, where global climate agreements are crafted and agreed on by nearly 200 nations. So far, Edelman, Burson Cohn & Wolfe (BCW), FGS Global, and CT Group have all held contracts with COP28, with the latter the only one left as of June 14, according to the Financial Times.
Weber Shandwick also handled PR work for the Arab Petroleum Investments Corporation as recently as November 2022, according to a press release. The Arab Petroleum Investments Corporation lists multiple fossil fuel projects within its investment portfolio, including an oil drilling project in Kuwait, a refinery in Oman, an LNG terminal in Bahrain, a gas project in Qatar, and a methanol production facility in Egypt.
“We only work with organizations who support the Paris Climate Accord and its goal of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, compared to pre-industrial levels,” the Weber Shandwick spokesperson said.
Weber Shandwick’s own external communications show a concerted effort to distance itself from its work in the oil and gas sector. The agency has a dedicated page describing its range of sustainability communications capabilities for the energy sector. But this page omits reference to the oil and gas expertise its client roster would suggest the agency holds, only describing its experience in the renewable energy sector: “Our work represents the entire energy spectrum of renewable and carbon-free generation – supply, electrification, transmission, distribution, technology, data and AI, advocacy and energy policy.”
In 2021, social scientists Robert Brulle and Cartie Werthman (who now researches and writes for DeSmog) published a study calling out the PR industry as a “major” but “overlooked” influence in climate politics — and included Weber Shandwick’s work for polluting industries in their analysis.
“Weber Shandwick and their holding company Interpublic Group need to choose whether they want to be a genuine leader in forums such as London Climate Week, or allies of fossil fuel polluters — you cannot do both,” Meisel said.
Conflicts of interest held by PR agencies running communications for high-profile climate events are becoming a greater reputational risk for the industry. Last year, the Egyptian government received criticism for employing Hill+Knowlton, a disinformation tactics pioneer, as its communications partner for the COP27 climate summit in Sharm El Sheikh. The agency counted or had recently counted Aramco, Shell, ExxonMobil, Chevron, and the Oil and Gas Climate Initiative among its clients, and more than 400 scientists urged the PR firm to drop its fossil fuel work while leading communications for the international climate conference.
“Any company working with opponents of net-zero such as ExxonMobil, Shell, and TotalEnergies cannot be an honest broker in discussions about climate action,” Meisel said.