Egypt’s choice to lead public relations at the United Nations climate talks has been criticized

Some 35,000 delegates from nearly 200 countries are expected to gather at the southern tip of Egypt’s Sinai peninsula to discuss collective action on how to tackle the climate emergency.

Sean Gallup | Getty Images News | Getty Images

SHARM EL-SHEIKH, Egypt — Environmental activists see deep irony in Egypt’s choice to hire US public relations firm Hill and Knowlton Strategies to lead communications at the largest climate conference on the planet.

The host country’s COP27 summit, which runs for nearly two weeks to November 18 in the Red Sea resort town of Sharm el-Sheikh, sees Hill and Knowlton handling briefings and press conferences at an event designed to stimulate collective action on the climate emergency.

The public relations firm, however, has come under fire for what critics say is a long track record of spreading disinformation on behalf of its Big Oil clients.

“Hill and Knowlton is the leading lobbying communications firm for the oil industry,” said Duncan Meisel, campaign director at Clean Creatives, a US-based group working to separate the public relations industry from the industry. of fossil fuels.

“There’s almost no more inappropriate agency to hire to lead communications for a climate summit,” Meisel told CNBC by phone.

A Hill and Knowlton spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment, and Hill and Knowlton’s parent company WPP did not respond to CNBC’s questions.

There is a particularly profound irony in the fact that Hill and Knowlton, with this decades-long experience of advocating and facilitating corporate deception and corporate malfeasance, are a critical voice for global climate negotiations.

Carroll Muffett

CIEL Chief Executive Officer

Hill and Knowlton, in addition to working with major tobacco companies in the 1950s, is known to have worked for fossil fuel clients such as Saudi Aramco, ExxonMobil and the Oil and Gas Climate Initiative, a consortium of 12 of the world’s largest oil and gas companies.

For example, Hill and Knowlton in 2017 and 2018 helped create ads showcasing Shell’s role in powering London’s buses with biofuel made in part from coffee waste. The PR firm said the campaign “exceeded all expectations” as it became a global story, with nearly 1,200 news stories and 11.9 billion media impressions. Critics, however, have called it “greenwashing” with Shell having major oil and gas operations around the world.

On the eve of COP27, a group of more than 400 scientists wrote to Hill, Knowlton and WPP and said the company’s work for Big Oil customers was “incompatible with its role as public communications lead at the annual United Nations Climate Change”.

The Union of Concerned Scientists, a US-based non-profit science advocacy group, also urged Hill and Knowlton “to end its relationship with fossil fuel customers who are making the climate crisis worse and fully commit in climate action that the world desperately needs.”

On its website, Hill and Knowlton claims it manages public affairs, digital and brand strategies for clients in the energy sector. He says he has “experience with Fortune 500 companies, trade associations, government agencies, start-ups and investors across all industries,” including oil and gas, nuclear, renewable energy and cleantech.

‘A particularly profound irony’

Carroll Muffett, chief executive of the non-profit Center for International Environmental Law, described Egypt’s choice to hire a public relations firm known to be “one of the worst in reputation” to lead the media for the COP27 summit as “extraordinarily instructive” and “deeply disturbing”.

“Any PR agency that actively supports promotion [a] The narrative of continued expansion of fossil fuels under any circumstances is a problem,” Muffett told CNBC by phone.

“On the flip side, there is a particularly profound irony from Hill and Knowlton, with this decades-long experience of advocating and facilitating corporate deception and corporate malfeasance being a critical voice for global climate negotiations,” he said .

Egypt’s COP presidency and the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change were not immediately available to respond to a request for comment from CNBC.

It comes at a time of growing momentum for calls to end fossil fuel production around the world.

The South Pacific island nation of Tuvalu last week became the first country to use the UN’s flagship climate talks to push for a fossil fuel non-proliferation treaty. The European Parliament, the Vatican and the World Health Organization have backed the proposal in recent months.

To date, however, only a handful of small countries have endorsed the initiative, and the fossil fuel industry has generally sought to emphasize the importance of energy security in the transition to renewable energy.

Indeed, the burning of fossil fuels, such as coal, oil and gas, is the main driver of the climate emergency.

The role PR firms and advertising agencies played in the “greenwashing” of fossil fuels has generally been overlooked, in large part because media companies have tried to stay true to the adage that “the best advertising is invisible advertising.” “.

United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres recently dubbed what he described as “the huge public relations machine raising billions to shield the fossil fuel industry from scrutiny.”

Sean Gallup | Getty Images News | Getty Images

United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, however, recently dubbed what he described as “the huge public relations machine raising billions to shield the fossil fuel industry from scrutiny.”

“Just as they did for the tobacco industry decades earlier, lobbyists and spin doctors spewed harmful disinformation,” Guterres said in a speech to the United Nations general assembly on Sept. 20.

“Fossil fuel interests need to spend less time avoiding a public relations disaster and more time avoiding a planetary one.”

“A clear conflict of interest”

A peer-reviewed study published late last year in the journal Climatic Change was the first to comprehensively document the role PR firms have played in helping the world’s most profitable oil and gas companies improve their environmental image and block climate action.

It found that energy giants have relied on PR firms and advertising agencies to refine their public messaging for more than three decades.

Christine Arena, a former executive vice president at US public relations giant Edelman who resigned in 2015 over the company’s position on climate change, told CNBC it was concerning to see the United Nations Climate Change Conference choose to partner with Hill. and Knowlton.

“Hill & Knowlton is a top five most used public relations firm for gas, oil, coal and utility clients, including Saudi Aramco, Exxon and the Oil and Gas Climate Initiative to name a few,” Arena said.

“This presents a clear conflict of interest and an increased likelihood that the same fossil fuel talking points will remain front and center in the most significant climate event of the year.”

“Equally concerning is the fact that, in response to growing demands for accountability, both H&K and its parent company WPP remain silent,” he added.

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