‘Inoculate From Criticism’: A Closer Look at the Public Relations Companies Active at COP28

Controversies surrounding Sultan Ahmed Al Jaber have underscored the role of reputation management in climate diplomacy.
Cartie Werthman, a young woman with straight blonde hair, smiling in front of an evergreen tree and aerial view of a city
Cartie Werthman, a young woman with straight blonde hair, smiling in front of an evergreen tree and aerial view of a city
on
Sultan Ahmed Al Jaber addresses a news conference in Dubai, December 4, 2023. Credit: Just Stop Oil YouTube Channel.

There’s only a few days to go before Sultan Ahmed Al Jaber, the first oil executive to preside over UN climate negotiations, brings down his gavel in Dubai.  

While COP28 delegates have been wrangling over the wording of the all-important text, DeSmog has been tracking an overlooked factor in climate diplomacy: the role of the advertising and public relations (PR) industry in shaping perceptions of key players.

Since being designated COP president in January, Al Jaber, who heads Abu Dhabi’s national oil company, has cycled through a dozen or so American PR companies, according to filings with the U.S. Department of Justice (DoJ), which requires public disclosures from businesses seeking to influence Americans on behalf of foreign governments under the Foreign Agents Registration Act. 

And PR executives have been out in force at the expo center hosting COP28, with 64 representatives from American PR giant Edelman alone in attendance, according to the delegates’ register. Other American PR firms have also established a ground force at COP28: Burson Cohn & Wolfe sent 25 delegates; APCO Worldwide sent 12; Teneo sent 13, and FGS Global sent 11. These companies have disclosed current and past contracts with the United Arab Emirates government and state-owned entities.

The UAE’s enormous team of PR professionals from these American firms is in turn mingling with more than 2,400 delegates attending COP28 from the oil, gas and coal industry. The annual two weeks of talks, which are due to end on Tuesday, attracted a record 84,000 people. 

The role of PR companies in shaping public perceptions of climate figures has come into sharper focus than ever before under Al Jaber’s presidency. 

A fiercely contested choice to run a Conference of Parties, or COP, from the outset, Al Jaber has been embroiled in a series of PR crises since the talks opened, including a report that he had planned to use his presidency to strike oil deals (Al Jaber denied the report), and testy comments in a webinar where he pushed back against calls for a rapid phase-out of fossil fuels. (Al-Jaber later denied questioning whether climate science required a phase-out of fossil fuels to keep warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius, saying his comments had been misrepresented by the media). In August, O’Dwyers had reported that New Jersey-based public relations company First International Resource had pledged to use its expertise to help “inoculate” al Jaber from criticism in the West, citing documents filed by the company with the DoJ. 

DeSmog has created in-depth profiles of some of the key public relations players engaged in COP28, which can be accessed by clicking the name of each agency below:

Edelman 

Masdar, the renewable energy unit of the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (Adnoc), hired Edelman in June 2023 to provide media support for COP28 in a contract worth over $2 million. Masdar,  which has become the face of the United Arab Emirates’ climate diplomacy, paid Edelman an additional $500,000 for communications support during COP28, according to DoJ filings. 

DeSmog has previously documented Edelman’s extensive work with the UAE to position Al Jaber as a leader in international climate diplomacy, even as Adnoc plans to ramp up production of oil and gas. In 2007, Edelman began to burnish the UAE’s green image by heavily publicizing Masdar City, which was supposed to be a world-leading eco-friendly development with net-zero emissions. Masdar City failed to become the promised clean energy oasis, but Edelman and the UAE continued to work together. 

Edelman has a long history of controversial work for fossil fuel clients; its campaigns for the American Petroleum Institute helped defeat climate legislation proposed during the Obama administration. In 2021, facing criticism from environmental groups over its work with fossil fuel clients, Edelman said it would not walk away from clients including ExxonMobil and the American Fuel and Petrochemical Manufacturers. 

When contacted by DeSmog, Edelman had no comment beyond directing readers to the documents filed with the DoJ. 

Burson Cohn & Wolfe

Masdar hired Burson Cohn & Wolfe (BCW) last year to manage public relations for the UAE through COP28, but the contract was abruptly terminated in December 2022, almost a year before its scheduled end date, according to DoJ filings. 

BCW’s subsidiary Asda’a said on its website that it rallied support for the UAE’s bid to host COP28 in the two weeks before the UAE was named as the COP28 host in November 2021. In December 2021, the UAE hired BCW to “highlight the UAE’s commitment to addressing climate change,” according to BCW’s DoJ filings. This contract appeared to blur the line between Al Jaber’s role as UAE climate envoy and his position as CEO of Adnoc, since BCW was hired by the UAE’s Office of the Climate Change Special Envoy but paid by Adnoc

In August, the Environmental Agency of Abu Dhabi hired BCW to increase public awareness of the agency. 

BCW has an extensive history working with fossil fuel clients. A DeSmog profile of the firm published earlier this year found General Electric and Saudi Aramco hired BCW to manage the announcement of their 2decarbonisation roadmap” in 2022. 

BCW’s parent company WPP says it supports urgent action on the climate crisis.

APCO Worldwide

APCO Worldwide, a public relations firm which worked for the tobacco industry in the 1990s to undermine science around the risks of secondhand smoke, has worked with the UAE for several years. Abu Dhabi’s Technology Innovation Institute hired APCO in October 2021 to promote the UAE as a key player in advanced technology among American audiences. In 2021, ADNOC hired APCO for eight months to represent Al Jaber in “interactions with the United States as it relates to the global climate agenda,” according to documents APCO filed with the DoJ.

Earlier this year, APCO hired Lynn Davidson, who served as the spokesperson for the COP26 Presidency.  

First International Resources

In July, the UAE’s Masdar hired First International Resources to improve its green image with the West.

Following the controversy surrounding Al Jaber’s appointment to the presidency of the climate talks, First International Resources said it would work to “inoculate Dr. Al Jaber and COP28 from any potential criticism” and position the United Arab Emirates, a major oil producer, as an “innovative leader” in the transition away from fossil fuels, according to DoJ filings made in August 2023, which were previously reported by O’Dwyer’s. 

First International Resources was also hired to facilitate meetings between Al Jaber and members of the Biden administration. The company said it could mobilize, if appropriate, “connections inside the ‘US Jewish Establishment’ to help support the campaign’s overall objectives,” the filings show. 

First International Resources did not respond to a DeSmog request for comment. 

Further Profiles

Check out DeSmog’s coverage of other public relations firms working for fossil fuel clients: 

T Brand Studio

WP Creative Group

Havas

Omnicom Group

VML

Grey Group

GSD&M

Kekst CNC

Ogilvy

Weber Shandwick

FleishmanHillard

Cartie Werthman, a young woman with straight blonde hair, smiling in front of an evergreen tree and aerial view of a city
Cartie Werthman joined DeSmog in May 2022 as a writer and researcher. She previously worked with the Climate Social Science Network through Brown University, researching the role of public relations firms in climate change politics. Her work has been published in the journal Climatic Change.

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