The world has known about the dangers of climate change for decades — so why are oil and gas companies still drilling for crude as if there’s no tomorrow? There’s no simple answer. But any explanation would have to give some credit to the wizards of public relations. For more than a century, these spinmasters downplayed misdeeds, twisted facts, and cajoled the media into mimicking their talking points.
“A lot of what we have as PR today, in general, was built in service of the fossil fuel industry,” said Amy Westervelt, the host of Drilled, billed as “a true-crime podcast about climate change.” The first season of Drilled investigated the history of climate denial, and the second looked at the West Coast crabbers suing Big Oil for contributing to warmer oceans and throwing the marine food web out of whack. In the latest season launched last month, Westervelt introduces the “Mad Men of Climate Denial” — the publicists who coached the fossil fuel industry how to shape public opinion over the past century.
Creating a cloud of confusion around established science is one of their well-known tactics. Exxon and the coal industry knew about global warming as early as the 1960s; instead of telling the public, they spread doubt about the science behind it. That’s just one facet of the fossil fuel industry’s propaganda machine. (“Propaganda” might seem too strong of a word, but Westervelt says it’s the very definition: “a one-sided message with the aim of shifting public opinion or policy.”) Digging through archives, presidential libraries, and old PR books, Westervelt found the pushy executives, manipulative schmoozers, and “inventive” storytellers who made it work.
“People are largely unaware that there’s a massive system running underneath everything,” Westervelt said in an interview with Grist. “A lot of the ideas they have about the fossil fuel industry and even the language they use has been crafted very carefully by the industry itself.”
She takes us on a wild journey from a turn-of-the-century massacre in Colorado coal country to the messaging strategy of, yes, Nazi Germany, telling the stories of the people who worked to boost oil’s image and how their experiences taught them to influence the media, politicians, and the courts. Here are just a handful of the wild strategies they came up with, all still in use.
Fake news: “Fake news” proliferates on the internet today, a plague of modern life with a long pedigree. You can trace it back to Ivy Ledbetter Lee, often called the father of modern public relations. In the early 1900s, Lee was tasked with rehabilitating the public image of the tycoon John D. Rockefeller. His company, Standard Oil, had brutally stamped out a workers strike at a Colorado coal mine in 1913, setting tents on fire and spraying their camp with machine guns. Lee crafted a story to smooth things over, claiming that the strikers were actually plants hired by a labor union, and that the whole thing had been orchestrated by Mother Jones, a famous labor organizer (he also made up that she ran a nearby brothel). “What are facts anyway but my interpretation of what happened?” Lee said later on.
Corporate philanthropy: Lee’s coverup went so well that Rockefeller kept him on board for the rest of his life. In addition to inventing the press release (imagine, the newspaper prints your version of the story word for word!), Lee prodded Rockefeller to donate to charitable causes, like museums, to burnish his reputation. The approach gained traction as other robber barons realized that they, too, could be remembered as kindly philanthropists. The arts are now soaked with oil money — and with their names emblazoned on art museum walls and festivals signs, corporations get a similar reputational boost.