This story is part of Covering Climate Now, a global collaboration of more than 250 news outlets to strengthen coverage of the climate story.
Public relations experts keep a careful eye on the multitude of ways that PR can go wrong: tracking the year’s biggest “PR blunders,” assessing flopped ads for lessons learned, and noting when to remain silent and when to circulate a particular point of view.
PR blunders have been blamed for causing stock prices to dip, powerful executives to lose jobs, and occasionally even forced public apologies from PR representatives themselves.
But it takes a special kind of PR nightmare — a particularly unusual kind in the U.S., with its broad protections for free speech — to prompt investigations by state attorneys general into whether a company’s public messaging was so misleading and harmful that it should be considered illegal.
That is the situation facing one of the world’s most powerful industries, on one of the most consequential issues of our time, climate change. The subject of these investigations isn’t the direct harm from the fossil fuel industry’s actions, it’s the ways that companies communicated about their actions, and how that misled investors or the public.
And right on cue, the fossil fuel industry's PR professionals have been stepping in to help reshape the narratives propping up their bottom lines.