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Why Edelman’s Trust Barometer is undermined by its work with fossil fuels

By Duncan Meisel | Duncan Meisel

January 18, 2023 | 6 min read

Edelman’s 2023 Trust Barometer earlier this week revealed the public's waning trust in major institutions but, campaign group Clean Creatives director Duncan Meisel believes the PR agency’s relationship with Big Oil undermines trust in the brand.

Edelman Exxon

Edelman has faced criticism for its ongoing work with oil firm Exxon / Unsplash

Every January since 2000, Richard Edelman, CEO of the comms giant named after him, has shared Edelman’s premier report: The Trust Barometer. This annual survey of tens of thousands of people worldwide is a guidebook for the major social issues business leaders need to face and features strategies to rebuild trust in a social and political environment that sorely needs more of it. This is a valuable contribution to the business community and PR practitioners.

The biggest problem with the Trust Barometer today is its messenger: Richard Edelman and Edelman itself. For most of the past 23 years, Edelman has taken more contracts with fossil fuel companies and lobbying organizations that promote climate misinformation and denial than any communications agency on the planet.

Edelman booked $440m in contracts with The American Petroleum Institute (API) at the same time the group was funding climate deniers. It currently works with Saudi refining and chemicals giant SABIC, as well as Shell, Exxon and others who face numerous legal and regulatory actions over their misleading statements about climate change. Up until 2021, it worked with America’s most vocal defender of polluting cars and dirty refineries, the American Fuel and Petrochemical Association.

Edelman has faced public protests, employee revolts, and consistent negative media coverage over its fossil fuel work for at least a decade. The backlash is not a surprise: according to the 2023 Trust Barometer itself, climate change is the number one “existential social fear” facing the global public today. Furthermore, "having a societal impact is a strong expectation or deal breaker when considering a job” for 69% of employees.

72% of the people surveyed in the Trust Barometer say it is the obligation of CEOs to “defend facts and call out questionable science used to justify bad social policy.” When its work with polluters is called into question, Edelman tends to defend their contracts by saying that they are helping those companies in the climate transition.

However, there is no evidence that Edelman’s fossil fuel engagement strategy is working. In fact, we have gigatons of evidence that it is failing: every known Edelman client in the fossil fuel industry is polluting more carbon than when they began working together. Claiming to be a part of an energy transition while working for polluters is exactly the kind of questionable fact businesses should be calling out, not promoting.

Listen to the experts

The most trusted voices identified by the Trust Barometer in 2023 are two groups that Edelman has stridently ignored: scientists and NGO leaders. Over 450 scientists have called on advertising and PR companies to drop fossil fuel clients, along with dozens of climate justice NGOs.

The core of the Trust Barometer’s offering is that it provides a strong research basis for leaders to make ambitious moves to address the issues that matter most to the public. It’s a playbook for bold action. On climate, Edelman says six point five times more people want ambitious leadership than are worried about companies doing too much, a higher ratio than on any other issue researched.

Right now, the leadership of Edelman is refusing to put its own advice into practice. If this continues, the credibility of the Trust Barometer will decline, with real costs for the communications industry, and business executives who want to lead on major social issues.

After more than a decade of controversy – a decade that also was the hottest in recorded history – CEO Richard Edelman has all the information he needs in Edelman’s own reporting to make the call to drop fossil fuel clients. Ending work with polluters would restore trust in his own brand, and make the next edition of the Trust Barometer the most compelling one yet. We trust they'll see the light...

Duncan Meisel is the director of campaign group Clean Creatives.

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