The public relations trade has been soaked in oil from the start. They might claim to have shifted sides, but the public should remain wary.

By Kate Yoder, Grist

The people paid to brighten businesses’ images and clean up their messes have been working on behalf of fossil fuel companies for decades, helping to block policies to tackle climate change. Now, there’s pressure on public relations firms to drop their oil and gas clients — and take up the cause of the planet.

Activists have recently turned their attention to Edelman, the world’s largest PR agency, which has worked with ExxonMobil, Shell, and the American Petroleum Institute, Big Oil’s powerful lobbyists. After reviewing its stance on climate change for eight weeks, Edelman announced early last month that it would be keeping its emissions-intensive clients on board (at least, for now) to guide them through a “trusted transition” to “start their journey to action” through net-zero emissions goals and other planet-friendly ambitions.

Public relations for climate?

About two weeks later, 450 scientists signed a letter declaring that “advertising and public relations campaigns for fossil fuels must stop.” Astrid Caldas, a climatologist at the Union of Concerned Scientists, suggested that these agencies could put their marketing wiles to a better cause. “We’re calling on them to use their skills and resources to align with the science instead, and promote bold, ambitious, equitable climate action,” she said in a statement.

The problem is, the PR trade has been soaked in oil from the start. The relationship between publicists and oil companies traces back more than a century to when John D. Rockefeller, founder of Standard Oil, needed to rehabilitate his reputation after the Ludlow Massacre in 1914. A militia and private guards had opened fire on striking coal miners and torched their makeshift settlement, killing dozens of people — and Rockefeller was blamed for the incident.

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