An interview with Jamie Henn
Henn’s new campaign targets the PR and ad firms that work for Big Oil — and the creatives who could change that.
Emily Sanders is the Center for Climate Integrity’s editorial lead. Catch up with her on Twitter here.
Earlier this week, you got a special edition EXXONKNEWS (surprise!) — a video message from Attorney General Keith Ellison on his #ExxonKnew lawsuit in Minnesota, co-produced as part of a series by Fossil Free Media.
Fossil Free Media provides communications support for groups who are confronting the fossil fuel industry head on, develops shared resources for the movement to hold Big Oil accountable, and runs its own campaigns. Its latest is Clean Creatives, an effort to undercut Big Oil’s ability to put out misinformation by targeting its PR and ad agencies. Like Law Students for Climate Accountability, the student group we previously covered that encourages law school graduates not to work for firms that represent the fossil fuel industry, Clean Creatives seeks to disrupt another key pillar of support for the fossil fuel industry’s regime: the creatives that help the industry with its propaganda efforts.
Below is my conversation with Jamie Henn, former 350.org co-founder and longtime climate advocate and communicator, who now leads Fossil Free Media and the Clean Creatives campaign. Our interview is edited for length.
Credit: Jamie Henn
Can you talk a little bit about the historic role of PR in helping get us to this moment in the climate crisis, and where the Clean Creatives campaign comes in?
I think the PR and ad industry is one of most under-appreciated influencers in blocking our ability to take action on climate. People always say “the only thing we’re lacking is political will.” Well, this is the industry that tries to stop that political will from being created. They spread misinformation about fossil fuels and about the climate crisis to prevent politicians and the public from mobilizing to address the issue. And they’ve done it from the very beginning.
We were inspired to run this campaign after listening to Amy Westervelt’s podcast Drilled, Season 3 called “The Mad Men of Climate Denial.” She told the story dating back to the father of modern PR, Ivy Lee, who worked for John B. Rockefeller and Standard Oil. His major gig was rebranding Rockefeller as a philanthropist as opposed to an oil baron — and he did it pretty effectively. Fast forward through the 40s and 50s, the work that was done to equate the oil industry and patriotism — seeing oil as a key part of the American identity — was incredibly effective. Hardly an oil ad goes by in the United States without a big American flag flapping somewhere in the distance. Then in the 80s and 90s, just at a moment when Dr. Hansen and others were raising the alarm, the industry went on an all-out assault — setting up fake front groups, running advertorials in the New York Times, really spreading misinformation about the issue. In the 90s, because of this incredible assault from PR and advertising, the White House backed away from the Kyoto protocol. That was 30 years ago — we had a global agreement that would have begun to address this crisis.
Every time there is a push for climate action, the fossil fuel industry engages in a massive PR and advertising effort to try and stop it. The way they do it is by pretending that they’re part of the solution. They make the argument that ‘we’re already addressing this crisis, we don’t need regulation.’ You better believe they’re gonna do it again during the Biden administration. This time around we can’t allow this to happen. We have to try and undermine the ability for Big Oil to work with these firms, but also educate the public about the fact that this is political propaganda that they’re being subjected to.
PR companies — a lot of the same ones, actually — have been used before to deceptively market dangerous products like tobacco. Is there anything different about promoting bad climate actors?
It’s the same! They’ve been hand in hand since the very beginning. The same tools apply for tobacco industry advertisements featuring doctors saying they smoked Lucky Strikes and Exxon’s advertisements featuring scientists saying they make algae fuel. They’re trying to say they’ve changed, filters on cigarettes won’t give you cancer and carbon sequestration will solve the climate crisis.
The thing that gives me hope is that we were really able to go after the tobacco industry. The successful efforts to prevent tobacco companies from advertising in the U.S. had a major impact. These campaigns were really aggressive, and they were able to apply pressure to PR firms until it became unacceptable to work for Big Tobacco. We need to do the same thing to Big Oil.
What can people in the PR world do to create pressure besides refusing to work for a creative agency outright? What if you already work for one?
We’re actually most interested in finding creatives who work at a big firm like BBDO, who does ExxonMobil’s advertising, because they’re in an incredible position to exert influence. We’re looking for people to help organize within their industry writ large and within their companies to try to create change. So in some ways this is sort of like a union campaign.
What can people do? They can recruit more creatives. They can make their voices heard within the company — executives rely on their talent, so when talent says they care about an issue they can make a really big impact. And I think getting people involved in helping us create the type of content we need — no one is better equipped to mock the fossil fuel industry than the people who make their ads. And finally, we very intentionally put a big Signal number on the front of our website for people to leak information. We’re not asking for people to break the law, but when people have information about the ways PR firms have spread misinformation, or even who’s working for who, we’d love to hear about it. The emails that will describe how the industry lied to the American people don’t just exist at ExxonMobil — they also exist at Edelman, or WPP, who work for these companies.
We were really excited when Sheldon Whitehouse took to the Senate floor and called out FTI* in particular. We would love nothing more than a Congressional inquiry, or one of the lawsuits going up against Exxon to start subpoenaing these ad agencies and PR firms. I think that’s probably imminent, and if I was a PR firm I would be worried.
*Note: The New York Times recently reported on how FTI, a global consulting firm, shaped and ran nationwide influence campaigns for Big Oil that were designed to look like grassroots support for fossil fuels.
What are some things an average person might see that they don’t even realize is fossil fuel propaganda? How can we be more discerning consumers?
First and foremost is greenwashing. The industry is dead set on convincing the public that they are becoming renewable energy companies. When you go to Shell’s website it’s all about everything they’re doing on climate. Only when you dig into the particulars do you realize they’re only reducing emissions by 1 percent a year. Same with just about everybody else. Second is social media -- the same rules apply. When influencers or celebrities post something about climate change on social media they instantly get attacked by thousands of commenters — many are hired stooges. I think all of us doing more in our own lives to correct information, to battle the misinformation, is really key. And we should encourage our politicians to do the same. And finally, I think Mary Heglar coined the term “greentrolling” — this industry is terrified of losing the next generation, so the more that we can mock them and use humor, that’s key too. We’re facing a deadly serious crisis, so the occasional dose of humor is most welcome.
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Until next week!