Najib Saab. 6/8/2023

As the forthcoming climate summit (COP28) in Dubai approaches, public relations firms are scrambling to offer their services to clients from both private and public sectors, specifically in the Gulf countries. These legitimate attempts to win new contracts, by seizing the opportunity of the summit being held in the UAE, bear more than one explanation. The goal of PR firms is to expose the bright side of their clients, by promoting their achievements, products and work, and defending them if they are exposed to unfair campaigns from competitors and campaigners. But the danger lies in using public relations as a means to spread lies, cover up mistakes and avoid accountability.

Had it not been for the PR campaigns some forty years ago, commissioned by olive producers in the Mediterranean countries to promote the health benefits of olive oil, this product would not have reached supermarket shelves and consumer tables around the world, to become widely used as a healthy alternative. Without public relations campaigns, consumers would not have known about many useful new innovations that need more than spot commercial advertising. However, PR campaigns are not limited to promoting the products of commercial companies, but also include promoting the policies of governments and public and private organizations, as well as advertising for individuals aspiring for leadership positions

environmental protection and climate action, as requirements for the private sector and mandatory element in government programs, added a new dimension to the services provided by PR firms. Were it not for the professional work of these companies, the public would not have known, for example, about the serious environmental and genuine social commitments of many private sector companies and the leadership of some of them in the fields of renewable energy, ecotourism and environment-friendly infrastructure services. Promoting the pioneering work of the Saudi company AcwaPower in renewable energy projects around the world, and the programs of the Abu Dhabi Future Energy Company (Masdar), are among the factors that encouraged other companies to switch to sustainable investments. Equally, highlighting the initiatives of Arab governments and commercial banks in issuing green bonds, and the launch of ambitious national programs such as Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030, encouraged other governments to replicate the successful initiatives and try to emulate them.

However, the picture is not always rosy. In many cases, companies allocate large budgets for PR campaigns designed to cover up their mistakes and whitewash them. This includes falsely minimizing the damage of their emissions and toxic waste, while exaggerating the benefits of their products and the contribution of their operations to the creation of jobs and rewarding financial returns. They also prefer ad-hoc donations to an association here and a charitable organization there, over the allocation of fixed budgets to support social and environmental initiatives. Some PR campaigns reach such a level of insolence that they try to portray the toxic emissions from a factory as aromatic and refreshing nectar, and the destruction of nature and resources to build a touristic, industrial, or commercial project, as a small price to pay in order to achieve development and serve the community. In view of securing higher illegitimate profits, they ignore potential alternatives for balancing development, protecting the environment and preserving people’s interests. What is spent on public relations campaigns to cover up destructive and outrageous practices is usually many times more than what is spent on campaigns to promote good practices, whose advantages and benefits are often visible and sufficient to speak for themselves.

The green-washing of destructive environmental and climate practices, same as money laundering, is no longer an easy practice that can go unaccounted for. Many countries have passed laws to criminalize it, allowing those affected to file lawsuits, based on the principles of environmental justice, against violators and those who protect them, including offenses like spreading misinformation and fake news. In the past two years, campaigners have brought 53 lawsuits to courts around the world against companies on charges that center around “climate whitewashing”, mainly falsely reporting emissions from their operations or failing to live up to commitments they made. In the last 20 years, some 2,500 major environmental lawsuits have been filed worldwide, most of them in the United States. The US state of Oregon recently filed a lawsuit against companies in the oil sector, demanding more than $50 billion in compensation for their contribution to causing extreme weather driven by climate change. A British charity bought shares in Shell to justify filing a lawsuit against it as a shareholder, on charges of inadequate environmental measures and inaccurate reports, amounting to misleading shareholders. Paris and New York joined other municipal councils around the world to file a lawsuit against Total Energy for not giving enough attention in its operations to environmental standards.

Regardless of where these legal challenges lead, and the fact that many of them will be dismissed, what is certain is that they have introduced a new element to monitor the private sector’s commitment to environmental and climate rules and criteria. A study conducted recently by the London School of Economics (LSE) showed that the shares of companies that are exposed to environmental and climate lawsuits drop about half a percent, regardless of the outcome. However, this also places a bigger responsibility on the plaintiffs suing under the pretext of defending the environment, who must verify their information before making accusations and resorting to litigation.

Environmental lawsuits are not limited to private sector companies, as they are often aimed at governments. It was remarkable this year that citizens and environmental groups from more than 30 countries filed complaints before the European Court of Human Rights, on the grounds that the failure of countries to take environmental and climate measures constitutes a violation of the people’s human rights.

On the verge of COP28 in Dubai, we hope both the private and public sectors will use public relations firms to promote achievements, sound policies and successes, which are many, rather than to cover up corrupt and destructive practices.