Friday, February 19, 2010

Climate Change Has a Bad Week – Is New PR What’s Next?

Yesterday, the UN guy who’s been trying to guide climate talks to “a successful outcome” for almost four years resigned. Yvo de Boer said he’s quitting on July 1 to work in academia and business; he’s fed up to his necktie by “unrelenting bickering between rich and poor countries.” It’s just the latest PR hit.

Earlier this week, three major companies dropped their membership in the US Climate Action Partnership (USCAP) this week, announced in big, bold headlines from coast to coast. USCAP is a coalition that boasts “broad-based support for climate change legislation this year.”

BP, Caterpillar and ConocoPhillips have declined to renew their participation in a big-time lobbying campaign. USCAP assures its Washington audience, the main target of its efforts, that plenty of corporations support its positions. But the publicity surrounding the departure of three large companies raises a couple of points about a classic form of PR in action. (Readers, the climate change/global-warming issue does not admit of simple answers no matter how I turn it.)

No matter how effective a program, perhaps PR cannot fully overcome the fact that a proposed US cap-and-trade market would hurt the financial positions of large fossil fuel emitters. For example, the cost of carbon in the oil sector for the five largest oil companies — ExxonMobil, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, BP and Royal Dutch Shell — is estimated to cost them from $247 million to $355 million.

(Call the median $300 million and say each company is equally burdened. That’s $60 million or so which would buy a whole lot of public relations to support other, more corporate-friendly initiatives, presuming that each of the oil companies spent it on PR instead of remediating refinery systems.)

USCAP touts the connection between cap-and-trade and innovation, but it appears that the climate change campaign no longer has quite the same compelling force. So, PR. Capital Research Center which asked and answered an key question in its “Organization Trends” newsletter: Who runs USCAP?

USCAP describes itself as a “business and NGO partnership,” but does not have its own staff. Like other DC-based coalitions that promote policy agendas, USCAP relies primarily on outside public relations and government consulting groups to conduct operations and coordinate the activities of members. It's how they earn their fees. Lighthouse Consulting, the Meridian Institute and the powerhouse PR and lobbying firm Powell Tate | Weber Shandwick are the wizards behind the USCAP curtain.

USCAP is quintessentially a public relations activity. And most recently, Outreach Strategies has been identified as the agency of record for USCAP (by the Potomac Flacks blog). This firm is composed of two agency vets from a completely different outfit, Tad Segal and Joe Clayton, who are supposed to focus on advocacy communications, issues management, stakeholder engagement and media relations. “Clayton recently served as CEO of Widmeyer Communications. Segal also recently left Widmeyer, having led the agency’s Public Affairs group.”

Following the currently twisty course of events, it is clear that USCAP and its PR operators still follow the definition set out by the PRSA almost 30 years ago: “Public relations helps an organization and its publics adapt mutually to each other.”

USCAP’s PR, like it or not, has been effective – at least for a while. I’m almost glad that the UN doesn’t have quite the same talent for mutual adaptation.

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