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Exxon’s Secret Assist From the World’s Top PR Firm

A new report says that Edelman, the world’s largest independent PR company, has been working on an Exxon ad campaign to oppose climate regulations.

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 picture shows the logo of US oil and gas giant ExxonMobil during the World Gas Conference exhibition in Paris on June 2, 2015
Photo: Eric Piermont/AFP (Getty Images)

It seems that Exxon is freaked out by the Biden administration’s promises to crack down on carbon pollution. All year, it has been running ads on Facebook encouraging people to oppose climate policy. And, according to a new report, Exxon has worked with one of the world’s biggest PR firms in secret on the project.

Exxon buys more Facebook ads than any other fossil fuel company. A report out this week found that in 2021, Exxon has consistently been a top spender on climate issues across the social platform. The company’s ads aren’t merely focused on boosting its profile, though. As the Biden administration has taken steps curb oil and gas extraction from public lands, reject the Keystone XL pipeline, and otherwise enact climate policy, the oil major has run ads to encourage viewers to stand against these measures.

“It uses these ads to mobilize people for Exxon’s policy goals,” Duncan Meisel, co-founder of the Clean Creatives campaign to pressure PR firms to stop working with oil companies and co-author of the report, said.

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These politically focused ads are a part of Exxon’s “Exxchange” platform, which the company describes as a “community bringing together energy supporters to take action on issues affecting the energy industry and everyday lives.” Meisel said Exxchange launched in mid-2018 around when Democrats won a majority in the House and ramped up its spending in 2020 once Biden became the Democratic nominee for president.

“What that says is that this is really an explicitly political project,” said Meisel.

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Image for article titled Exxon’s Secret Assist From the World’s Top PR Firm
Screenshot: Exxon via Facebook ad library (Other)

Those who click on the ads on Facebook are sent to the Exxchange platform and asked to sign petitions. For instance, as Biden yanked Keystone XL pipeline permits and made pledges to cut carbon emissions, Exxon ran an ad campaign calling on Americans to “defend energy jobs.”

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And this month, as Democrats have been creating a budget bill full of climate policies that would increase taxes on corporations, Exxon started running Exxchange ads that call on users to oppose corporate tax hikes even as it aggressively lobbies lawmakers to water down the legislation. (Exxon, other oil companies, and climate deniers getting the green light for these types of ads stand in stark contrast to how activists and educators have been treated by the platform.) Separate research released last month by InfluenceMap shows that 25 oil companies paid for ads that were viewed 431 million times on Facebook in 2020, with Exxon spending the most over that period.

Previously, the Texas-based PR firm Harris Media, run by Republican consultant Vincent Harris and known for working with far-right political campaigns, took credit for creating Exxchange. But the Clean Creatives reported that’s not the whole story. A coding error uncovered by the group indicates that Edelman, the world’s largest independent PR company, appears to have also played a role in managing Exxchange.com.

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“A link on the preserved site includes a Microsoft SafeLinks URL containing the email address with an edelman.com domain. This SafeLinks URL could have only been generated by an Edelman employee and appears to have been mistakenly embedded in the site. It demonstrates that Edelman has had direct control over the site and its content, at least up until May of 2021,” the report says.

Earther has reached out to the firm with questions about its involvement with Exxchange and will update this post if we hear back. Edelman has previously worked with polluting entities like pipeline developer TransCanada, the American Petroleum Institute, and Shell. In fact, Clean Creatives found that they have more fossil fuel contracts than any other major ad agency.

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A graph showing Facebook ad spends by Exxon showing the spent next to nothing in early 2020 and then suddenly poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into ads from the summer until the election ended.
Image: InfluenceMap

But that’s far from the image the PR giant has tried to cultivate for itself. Just this week, Edelman has been going hard pushing a very different campaign—a collaboration between Tazo Tea and American Forests focused on hiring residents of low-income communities of color to plant trees in their neighborhoods, helping to boost tree equity. The campaign even boasts singer SZA as an ambassador.

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Why would Edelman want to distance itself from the Exxchange campaign and work with other polluters? Well, the report shines some light on that too: Edelman recently put out a report finding that 60% of employees would leave a company that is doing ‘fundamentally immoral’ work, and polls show that young workers increasingly view fossil fuel companies as immoral due to their massive contributions to the climate crisis. Perhaps the PR firm thinks hiding its work with Exxon will preserve its image in the public eye—and its ability to hold onto skilled staff.

“Edelman’s calling card is that they say they’re in the business of creating trust,” said Meisel. “But what’s really striking about this work for Exxon and work for the American Petroleum Institute or other polluters is that it’s really designed to undermine trust in climate science and climate solutions, so it’s a real glaring conflict with ... what they say their mission is.

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“It’s clear this isn’t the work they’re most proud of. Their work with fossil fuel companies is ... in direct conflict with their stated values.”

Update, 9/23/21, 5:00 p.m. ET: While Earther still has yet to receive a response from Edelman more than 24 hours after reaching out, the firm did issue a statement to trade site PR Weekly. “Edelman is refuting a report accusing the agency of working with ExxonMobil to undermine anti-climate change regulation work,” it said.

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But the statement doesn’t actually, uh, refute anything. It confirms it has been working with Exxon since 2020, but not to fight climate policy. “We do not talk about any opposition to climate legislation and our work is to do with job creation, economic opportunity and land access,” the firm said.

Jamie Henn, co-founder of Clean Creatives and co-author of the report, likened Edelman’s response to “having Darth Vader as a client but pretending you aren’t on the dark side.”

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“Trying to spin ExxonMobil’s advertising as anything other than lobbying against climate action is a stretch even for the most cynical PR executive,” he said.

Anyone at Edelman is still welcome to answer Earther’s questions or send us a tip on what other fossil fuel companies the firm works with at tips@gizmodo.com.