This Woke PR Firm Is Quietly Running an Influencer Campaign for Fossil Fuels

Porter Novelli says it's all-in on fixing climate change and racial injustice. Yet it's also running an ad campaign designed to counter "extreme environmentalists."
October 2, 2020, 4:58pm
Left: An Instagram ad for Gas Genius. Right: Natural gas is flared off at a plant outside of Cuero, Texas
Left: An Instagram ad for Gas Genius. Right: Natural gas is flared off at a plant outside of Cuero, Texas (photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

One of the world’s biggest public relations firms wants you to know that its idea of how to fight climate change includes dismantling systemic racism, reducing income inequality, and making nutritious food widely available. It’s less keen for you to know it’s also running an influencer campaign for fossil fuels.

The New York-based PR firm Porter Novelli, which has clients in 60 countries, has launched a conversation series called “Creating a New Climate: For Earth, For Women, For Justice.”

Advertisement

“Each of these issues are not in their own silos,” Porter Novelli concluded after hosting an event called “The Business Case For Climate Justice” in late September. “Climate change, racial and social injustice, food insecurity—these are not hot button issues for a one-day solve; they take deep-rooted, abiding dedication to create change.”

Porter Novelli released polling earlier this summer bolstering the case for aggressive action on the climate emergency; that research suggested that nearly half of today’s teens and young adults “are concerned progress on climate action will slow due to the pandemic.”

But there’s one thing that Porter Novelli isn’t advertising loudly: its multi-year social media marketing to get millennials excited about natural gas.

“When you switch to natural gas, you get incredible savings and unlimited coziness,” reads an Instagram ad that began running this week for Natural Gas Genius, the latest in an advertising effort by the American Public Gas Association to convince new homebuyers to choose gas appliances at a time when efforts to phase out gas are growing. The ads feature lots of fake fireplaces, barbecues, stocked kitchens with gas stoves, and smiling millennials.

A report last year from the group Carbon Tracker was clear: fossil fuel companies have to cut their production of oil and gas one-third by 2040 for the world to have any chance of meeting the Paris climate targets. There is no room for the gas industry to expand.

The “Gas Genius” campaign, first reported on earlier this summer by Mother Jones’ Rebecca Leber, was developed by Porter Novelli starting in 2018. The central message is “around the whole idea of natural gas as a lifestyle and not just a one-time purchase,” said Mary Faulke, a Porter Novelli strategist, during a private webinar for the American Public Gas Association, which was reviewed by VICE News. “As you can see, this strategy has really been paying off for us.”

Advertisement

During 2019, “the campaign saw 5.9 million paid media impressions; 41,605 click-throughs to the website; and, 14,669 people reached on Facebook,” according to the American Public Gas Association.

Porter Novelli received VICE News’ media request but didn’t make someone available for comment, writing “our team is up against some critical client deadlines.”

Companies like Porter Novelli typically dislike being the focus of media reporting, said Kert Davies, founder and director of a research group called the Climate Investigations Center that’s tracked the role of public relations firms in promoting fossil fuels. “In doing that work with the American Public Gas Association, they have to know that gas is not clean,” he told VICE News. “We can’t be burning gas anymore if we’re going to solve climate change.”

The people who run large companies sincerely worry about global heating, racial inequality, and social injustice, said Amanda North, founder and CEO of Plan C Advisors, which helps corporate board members and executives take action on the climate emergency and participated in Porter Novelli’s “Business Case for Climate Justice” event.

“You have to treat this as a substantive issue that permeates everything you do,” North said.

Porter Novelli states on its website that the work it does for companies like Microsoft, Disney, HP, Pepsi, Amazon, and other globally recognized brands creates “positive, meaningful and long-term impact.” It doesn’t list the American Public Gas Association as a client.

Advertisement

“Their work with oil and gas is a little bit dodgy,” Davies argued. “They don’t feature it up front.”

The American Public Gas Association is the industry group for local gas distribution companies across the U.S. It has become one of the leading opponents of efforts to phase natural gas out of new buildings, which are underway in 31 California cities, as well as communities in New Jersey, Massachusetts, and Washington.

“The direct use of natural gas is under attack by misdirected and extreme environmentalists,” reads a 2018 strategy document from the American Public Gas Association. “(This) requires an effective response before irreparable damage is done to our customers and industry.”

The “Gas Genius” campaign developed by Porter Novelli is part of that response. “2020 will feature a blog on our website. The blog will be able to feature fresh content routinely from PN (Porter Novelli) and influencers,” the association explains, “thus increasing consideration of natural gas.”

The American Public Gas Association sees no contradiction between this work and Porter Novelli’s public statements in support of intersectional solutions to climate change. “When it comes to climate justice that benefits all Americans no matter their economic status, race, region, etc., natural gas has a key role to play and that’s at the heart of the Genius campaign,” a spokesperson wrote to VICE News.

Does Porter Novelli feel the same way?

Davies once contacted the company and asked if they had an official position on climate change, as part of a larger survey of PR firms. His question was forwarded to Porter Novelli’s parent company Omnicom.

“Sorry for the delay in getting back to you,” Omnicom wrote. “No, Omnicon does not have a formal position paper on climate change. The company regards the threat of climate change (as) serious and we are taking measures to cut our carbon emissions around the world.”

There was no mention of racism, inequality, or food security.

Follow Geoff Dembicki on Twitter.