Hill+Knowlton Strategies has worked for ExxonMobil, Shell, Chevron and Saudi Aramco and is managing communications for Egypt’s presidency of the U.N. climate conference,
By Ben Webster and Lucas Amin
The U.S. public relations firm helping Egypt organise COP27 also works for major oil companies and has been accused of greenwashing on their behalf, openDemocracy can reveal.
Hill+Knowlton Strategies, which has worked for ExxonMobil, Shell, Chevron and Saudi Aramco, is managing communications for Egypt’s presidency of the U.N. climate conference, which will take place next month in Sharm El Sheikh.
Hill+Knowlton’s clients have also included Coca-Cola, which last month was controversially named as a sponsor of the conference despite having been declared the world’s worst corporate plastic polluter for four years in a row.
Kathy Mulvey, accountability campaign director at the Union of Concerned Scientists — a non-profit advocacy group — told openDemocracy that Hill+Knowlton had a “shameful track record of spreading disinformation” on behalf of oil companies.
“The COP presidency should use a PR firm committed to achieving the goals of the Paris Agreement,” she said. “All bad actors involved in climate deception —including the PR industry — must be held accountable.”
[Related: COP26: Fossil Fuel Lobbyists Outnumber Any Nation’s Delegates]
U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres recently called out the “public relations machine raking in billions to shield the fossil fuel industry from scrutiny.”
“Just as they did for the tobacco industry decades before, lobbyists and spin doctors have spewed harmful misinformation,” Guterres said last month. “Fossil fuel interests need to spend less time averting a PR disaster — and more time averting a planetary one.”
Hill+Knowlton, one of the oldest PR firms in America, did indeed work extensively for the tobacco industry during the 20th century and is now employed by the oil and gas sector. But its track record has not stopped it winning business at COP27.
Hill+Knowlton has been accused of greenwashing over its PR work for the Oil and Gas Climate Initiative (OGCI) — a group of 12 fossil fuel industry CEOs, including those of ExxonMobil, Shell and BP.
As well as being named on OGCI press releases since at least 2016, Hill+Knowlton has acted as the OGCI’s secretariat, according to a U.N.-backed website, suggesting it coordinated the group’s work.
Hill+Knowlton’s “leadership” of the OGCI earned it a satirical prize earlier this year for “environmental impact” at the “F list awards,” a tongue-in-cheek initiative aimed at exposing greenwash in the “most egregious campaigns on behalf of fossil fuel companies.”
The awards are organised by Clean Creatives, a campaign group that encourages PR and advertising agencies to boycott fossil fuel companies.
Duncan Meisel, executive director at Clean Creatives, told openDemocracy: “Hill+Knowlton were leading pushers of misinformation on behalf of the tobacco industry, and they are continuing that legacy by misleading the public and policymakers on behalf of fossil fuel polluters.”
The OGCI says on its website that it “aims to accelerate action towards a net zero emissions future consistent with the Paris Agreement” — a claim it has repeated in press releases linked to Hill+Knowlton. The goals of the Paris Agreement are to keep global warming to well below 2C, and to pursue efforts to limit it to 1.5C.
But Meisel questioned the OGCI’s commitment to those goals.
“The International Energy Agency says that there is ‘no room’ for new oil and gas projects if we are to achieve the Paris climate goals,” he said, “but the members of the Oil and Gas Climate Initiative are collectively spending tens of billions of dollars to expand production of fossil fuels. Any statement or campaign implying they support keeping warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius is rightly classified as a lie.”
Further criticism of the OGCI’s spin has come from the campaign group Oil Change International, which described an OGCI report in 2019 on net zero emissions as “bad science, full of holes,” and the OGCI itself as “nothing but a greenwashing effort”.
Last week, the climate journalist and author Naomi Klein wrote about how Egypt’s ruler Abdel Fatah al-Sisi was using COP27 to greenwash his “police state.”
Klein said that “Sisi’s Egypt is making a big show of solar panels and biodegradable straws ahead of next month’s climate summit — but in reality the regime imprisons activists and bans research”.
Hill+Knowlton did not respond to requests for comment. Neither did OGCI, which employs Hill+Knowlton to handle media inquiries, nor the COP27 spokesperson within the Egyptian government.
Ben Webster works on investigations for openDemocracy into climate, environment and biodiversity issues. Ben spent 24 years at The Times, 11 of them as environment editor.
Lucas Amin is a reporter for openDemocracy’s investigations team
This article is from openDemocracy.
The views expressed are solely those of the author and may or may not reflect those of Consortium News.
So what else is new? At any and all of these world meetings the ones that always pull the strings are the big guys – be it oil or any other commodity. And the UN – in back pocket of these, left paralized and unable to do anything…but always pretending to defend the common man’s interest.
And I suppose this all is perfectly fine with the Citizens United ruling advocates, while it should instead be a hard fact that would cause the SCOTUS to reverse themselves.
Those heirs of Edward Bernays that managed to temporarily snooker even Amnesty International with a contrived story that found a second life in Syria (see Ali Abunimah, “How CNN Helped Spread a Hoax About Syrian Babies Dying in Incubators,” The Electronic Intifada, August 8, 2011) are back at it again!
“More than 10 years later, I can still recall my brother Sean’s face. It was bright red. Furious. Not one given to fits of temper, Sean was in an uproar. He was a father, and he had just heard that Iraqi soldiers had taken scores of babies out of incubators in Kuwait City and left them to die. The Iraqis had shipped the incubators back to Baghdad. A pacifist by nature, my brother was not in a peaceful mood that day. ‘We’ve got to go and get Saddam Hussein. Now,’ he said passionately.
The invented story eventually broke apart and was exposed. (I first saw it reported in December of 1992 on CBC-TV’s Fifth Estate – Canada’s ’60 Minutes’ – in a program called ‘Selling the War.’ The show later won an international Emmy.)
The Kuwait government had to find a way to ‘sell the war’ to the American public, who were interested, but not deeply involved. So under the auspices of a group called Citizen for a Free Kuwait, which was really the Kuwait government in exile (the group received almost $12 million from the Kuwaiti government, and only $17,000 from others, according to author John R. MacArthur) the American PR firm Hill & Knowlton was hired for $10.7 million to devise a campaign to win American support for the war. Craig Fuller, the firm’s president and COO, had been then-President George Bush’s chief of staff when the senior Bush has served as vice president under Ronald Reagan.”
Tom Regan, “When Contemplating War, Beware of Babies in Incubators,” The Christian Science Monitor, September 6, 2002
“According to documents filed with the Justice Department this week, WHO inked a $135,000 contract on May 1 with Hill and Knowlton Strategies to craft a public messaging strategy.
Hill and Knowlton, which registered under the Foreign Agents Registration Act, proposed identifying three tiers of influencers: celebrities with large social media followings, individuals with smaller but more engaged followings, and ‘hidden heroes,’ those users with slight followings but who ‘nevertheless shape and guide conversations.’
The celebrity influencers would be used ‘for greater amplification of WHO messaging,’ according to Hill and Knowlton’s proposal, which was first reported by The Daily Beast [see Lachlan Markay, ‘The World Health Organization Hired a Top PR Firm to Fight COVID Smears in The U.S.,’ The Daily Beast, July 17, 2020].”
Chuck Ross, “World Health Organization Hired PR Firm To Identify Celebrity ‘Influencers’ To Amplify Virus Messaging,” The Daily Caller, July 17, 2020
Let us not forget also Hill Knowlton’s deceitful role in promoting Operation Desert Storm to re-take Kuwait after the Iraqi invasion.
Nayirah told the House Human Rights Caucus that she had personally seen Iraqi troops remove babies from incubators and leave them to die on the hospital floor.
The true identity of the ‘witness’ was not revealed at the time. It was not until much later that she was exposed as a member of Kuwait’s ruling family. No verification for her claim was found or even sought. And, because the Human Rights Caucus was not an official committee of the House of Representatives, her statement was not made under oath.
The whole thing had been an enormous public relations operation for Hill Knowlton whose vice chairman at the time was Frank Mankiewicz who had earlier worked for Robert Kennedy and George McGovern in their respective presidential campaigns.