According to Amanda Edelman’s and Andrea Hagelgans’ recent op-ed in Fortune, the Gen Z voter turnout in the 2022 midterms is "all the proof companies need to act on social issues." Concerns like LGBTQ+ rights, gun violence, abortion access, and climate change are "critical considerations for Gen Z," a generation that "has grown up with active shooter drills from an early age and inherited a climate crisis." So, Edelman and Hagelgan argue, to "win Gen Z customers," companies "need to build that trust through action on social issues, not simply marketing on the topic." This is certainly a true statement, but the argument that marketing alone isn't sufficient is notable given that it's coming from two employees of Edelman, a major marketing consulting firm
For those who don't recognize the company's name, rest assured that you've seen its work. Edelman holds the title of the world’s largest public relations (PR) firm by revenue, a status secured, in part, by its long history of doing the fossil fuel industry's dirty disinformation work. The firm was founded in 1952 by Daniel Edelman, who was “an early proponent and practitioner of 'astroturfing': creating fake grassroots groups, with their funding by industry obscured, to counter real environmental and public health activism.”
The PR firm has since worked for fossil fuel industry(-backed) organizations, including the American Petroleum Institute, the National Association of Manufacturers, American Fuel and Petrochemical Manufacturers, and the American Legislative Exchange Council.
After coming under fire from Clean Creatives’ star-studded #EdelmanDropExxon campaign in 2021, Edelman made a series of attempts to greenwash its oil-stained reputation. According to The New York Times, Richard Edelman, CEO and son of Daniel Edelman, organized a video call in November 2021 with all Edelman employees to wax poetic about the great threat of climate change before bluntly saying “No,” the firm would not walk away from its fossil fuel clients because “the energy industry was in transition and needed Edelman’s services.” (How noble!) That month, Edelman also released its first ever Trust Barometer Special Report on Climate Change in an attempt to prove just how much the firm cares about the planet.
In November 2022, Edelman rolled out the sequel, the 2022 Edelman Trust Barometer Special Report on Trust and Climate Change.
Though it's not as overtly biased as other polling we've seen recently, the report certainly takes pains not to address the elephant in the room: Public trust has been damaged by decades of fossil fuel disinformation, some of which Edelman created. Instead of partisanship and propaganda, the survey focuses on the personal. For example, the fourth section of the report focuses on individual lifestyle changes as a solution to climate change. Edelman uses the results from this section to recommend that individuals “make greener choices.” That’s right: You’re the problem, not the multi-billion dollar fossil fuel corporations paying PR companies for disinformation and funding Republicans to block climate policy that would make necessary systemic improvements to address fossil fuel pollution.
In contrast, Amanda Edelman and Andrea Hagelgans emphasize a different potential solution. In their Fortune piece, they highlight actions by businesses and conclude on a positive note, writing that "Gen Zers have the power to influence older generations," and that "Edelman's Trust research shows that Gen Z's impact spreads to older generations in the workplace…"
Perhaps, then, Amanda Edelman, COO of Edelman's Gen Z lab, should talk to Richard Edelman, the CEO of the firm. As part of his continued attempts to greenwash the company’s record, Richard gave a "climate update" back in January in which he declared that the firm would “Focus on a just transition” and “Hold [itself] accountable.”
It is hard to say what accountability for decades of disinformation would look like, but for a start, Amanda could suggest that Edelman stop just marketing its green credentials and instead take action to restore the public's trust by opening up its playbook and letting the world see what tactics it has used to manipulate the public.
While Edelman might be contractually forbidden from admitting the dirty specifics of its past work, the firm could still potentially reveal which general tactics it uses across campaigns. For example, does it recommend that companies place op-eds in outlets like Fortune that say all the right things about needing to take action aligned with Gen Z's values while also publishing their own blog posts using Big Oil's beloved tactic of emphasizing individual "carbon friendly behaviors, products, and lifestyle choices"?
If Edelman truly wanted to redeem itself, it could reveal to reporters and researchers the ways in which public relations professionals erode public trust in media and government so that their industry clients won't face public demand for regulations. The firm could also work with activists to identify weak spots in the industrial opposition to climate policy and give the public an example of a company that takes full responsibility for its past harms.
Most of all, Edelman could simply stop working for the fossil fuel companies that are responsible for the climate crisis.
Of course, all this would be a pretty big demand for someone like Amanda to make of the CEO, given that she's only recently completed grad school and has only been at the company for a little over a year.
But what father can say no to a request from his daughter, especially during the holiday season?