January 14, 2022

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Edelman says it will drop clients that don’t meet its ESG standards

Independent PR giant Edelman said it will “part ways with clients” that don’t adhere to its new environmental, social and governance guidelines (ESG), following what was described as a 60-day review of over 330 clients conducted in response to pressure from climate activists. 

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Results of the assessment, which actually was completed in 53 days, were shared through a blog post Friday by CEO Richard Edelman himself rather than a report. The assessment is part of an ongoing sustainability strategy, Edelman Impact, which was established a week after the group Clean Creatives petitioned the firm to drop its oil and gas clients, particularly Exxon Mobil and Shell.

The petition from Clean Creatives, which describes itself as “ad professionals who want a safe climate future,” was circulated during the United Nations global climate summit in November and signed by more than 100 activists, academics, authors and actors, among others. Some notable signatories include actors Ilana Glazer and Amy Poehler, author Ta-Nehisi Coates, and marine biologist Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson.

On its back foot

Edelman said the firm was “on its back foot” two months ago and had to “get on its front foot,” which began with establishing operating principles for the business and its clients to follow. The firm said its six guiding principles are to “work with those committed to accelerating action to net zero and are in compliance with the Paris Accords; put science and facts first; advance best practices and standards for climate communications; ensure inclusivity; focus on a just transition; and hold ourselves accountable.”

But the agency’s efforts were met with skepticism by Clean Creatives, which on Twitter claimed that Richard Edelman “never took the review process seriously” and that there were “no outside experts involved and no transparent standards for evaluating clients’ climate goals.”

Edelman declined to comment.

“Edelman seems to be taking a reactive rather than a proactive approach; they should have learned their lesson a long time ago, and if they are so passionate about being or seeming ethical, they have had plenty of time to change,” said Thomas Kolster, marketing activist and sustainability thought-leader at Goodvertising. “Unfortunately as often the case with advertising agencies, there’s more talk than action. That said, I do applaud this change and if done right it can inspire other networks or agencies to look at standards or guidelines.” 

The agency said it will work to guide clients that have gaps in its standards with meetings starting next week.

“The goal is to guide them towards what a transition to net-zero looks like,” said Robert Casamento, who last month was named as Edelman’s first head of climate following a stint as a global climate and carbon markets advisor at Energy Innovation Capital. “The first step in that is educating ourselves more on what those trusted transition pathways look like. We’re looking to bring in independent experts to help us with that, but we’re also looking to do some more work with a world-renowned climate consulting company called SystemIQ, which specializes in systems change that focuses on climate action. Step one is to educate ourselves. Step two is to move towards what that looks like with high trust communications frameworks, and then step three is working with clients to move them towards that goal.”

Saying and promising

The review, which focused on clients from “emissions-intensive sectors” such as travel, agriculture, and automotive, was led by Casamento as well as Deanna Tallon, Edelman’s managing director, sustainability, and Paul Sammon, director of Edelman’s advisory board.

The PR company said it took a number of “internal and external data and perspectives” to conduct the review. That included finding out what its “clients say and do and promise,” said Richard Edelman, as well as Carbon Disclosure Project reporting and scores, the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports, and industry emissions pathway analysis such as the International Energy Agency’s Net Zero by 2050 roadmap for the global energy sector. 

“On the communications aspect there’s a lot that not just Edelman, but the entire industry can do to meet the goals of article 12 of the Paris Accord, which literally says we need quality communications to persuade people to change their behaviors,” he said. “Paul Polman [former CEO of Unilever] once said, ‘I’ve done the easy third; I’ve changed the products. The hard two-thirds are to change consumer behavior.’ We have to make the communications part, the change area too, to change behavior.”

In terms of putting science and facts first, Richard Edelman said it’s about transparency with consumers.

“Let’s use an example of plant-based meat,” he said. “There is a carbon footprint for plant-based meat. Acknowledge it, explain that,  perhaps it’s better than the one that comes from cattle or whatever, but that it’s not a zero carbon play. Just give the consumer the facts and let he or she make the decision based on full information.”

Aggregating by industry

Through the assessment, Edelman said in his blog post, the agency found instances where the PR company “played a key role in helping organizations acknowledge the significance of climate change and start their journey towards action.” In other instances, the company found clients that have no public position on the Paris Agreement, clients with no emissions data readily available, and clients that do not have net-zero goals, among other issues.