Story at a glance

  • Journalist and podcaster Amy Westervelt counters fossil fuel messaging with narrative, audio storytelling.
  • By presenting the history of fossil fuel public relations, Westervelt hopes the podcast will help people see through the ad campaigns, press releases and influence the fossil fuel industry wields.

Oil tycoon John D. Rockefeller hired America’s first public relations firm in 1914 to help him improve his image. Rockefeller’s company Standard Oil had been hit with an antitrust case that broke up the company and faced scrutiny when guards fired guns into a protest camp during a strike at one of his mines, killing 25 people. Once one of the most hated men in America, Rockefeller died in 1937 with a new image: a philanthropist.

Ivy Ledbetter Lee, who had been responsible for rehabilitating Rockefeller’s image, developed public relations techniques that influenced how fossil fuel companies presented themselves to the public and dealt with scrutiny over the past century.

Journalist and podcaster Amy Westervelt explains this history of fossil fuel PR in the third season of Drilled,” her climate accountability podcast that counters fossil fuel messaging with storytelling. By presenting the narrative of how we got here, a moment when fossil fuel companies retain a whole lot of power amid the need to slow and prevent the worst effects of climate change, Westervelt hopes the podcast will help people see through the ad campaigns, press releases and the influence the fossil fuel industry wields.

I caught up with Westervelt over the phone to ask her about the new season.

In “Drilled” season 3’s first episode, you talk about how fossil-fuel companies have not only pushed climate denial, but have also been slamming us with propaganda for a whole century. Can you explain?

The reason I started looking into this stuff was that my take on the whole thing is that the industry has these two levers. One is pro-fossil fuel propaganda, and the other is denial of anything that is critical of the fossil industry. They lean on one end or the other, just depending on what's working. There's been a little bit of a tendency to talk about inaction on climate as only being caused by science denial. And I think that’s not quite the case.

It's important for people to understand that the science denial tactic has definitely been damaging, and it was very effective, particularly in the ‘90s and the early 2000s, but it has waned in its impact over the last five or six years. Yet, we’re still seeing delay and inaction. That's because the industry has all of these other ways to prevent regulation.

Tell me more about these tactics.

With the propaganda, a lot of these guys came from military intelligence. They're highly trained in psychological warfare. These strategies have been very well developed and very detailed down to levels that you wouldn't even expect. One of the episodes that we're going to run this season is looking at how starting in the ‘40s and then all the way through the ‘90s, it was quite common for oil industry folks to infiltrate the whole education system. They not only weighed in on textbooks, but they also had a whole film arm that made videos that they would send to schools throughout the ‘50s and ‘60s. The whole idea there was to get people young and indoctrinate them into this idea that you can never strip out the economic impacts to the industry, if you're talking about energy policy. Then also this idea of making [the industry] so much a part of the American identity that it becomes difficult to speak out against the industry because it's like you're speaking out against America. They really focused on this idea of regulation being anti-Christian and anti-American. You see that kind of thinking come up all the time, not just in fossil fuel stuff but also across industries, but it comes from the fossil fuel guys.

And often, you say, these messages are tailored specifically to dance around reality. Can you explain that?

It's like wrapping propaganda in facts. And they do that with the science denial stuff too. A strategy that they use that's very effective is to wrap the lie in truth so that it becomes really difficult to argue against. It's super effective because the guys who invented these strategies were military intelligence, like [Psychological Operations Soldiers]. They have a very deep and very accurate understanding of human psychology, and they use it, which is really interesting when you compare it to how the climate movement operates: super-information heavy.

[Big Oil] knows how science communication works, and they know that uncertainty is a key component of it, and they've weaponized the public's lack of knowledge about that to be like, "Oh, see, the scientists aren't even certain." It's like, well, actually, you can't get 10 scientists in a room to say that there's 100 percent certainty that they're all in the room together. It's also a key part of scientific research funding. You have to always say there's more research needed to secure your next grant. The industry knows that, and they exploit it to their benefit.

There’s also a huge focus from the oil industry on the wording of their ad campaigns, for example, to get their message across without being easily refuted.

They're so good at using just the right language where they can't really be called out for lying. The ads that they had about carbon capture that are running on so many NPR podcasts right now are like, "We're funding technology that has the potential to absorb 90 percent of carbon emissions from power plants."

“Has the potential” is doing a lot of work in that sentence. But if you're an average listener, and you hear that, you go, "Oh, that's great." That's where, actually, I think that the media needs to take a bit more responsibility for educating people on this stuff. Because for 50 or 60 years even, you could reasonably make the argument that the media was unaware they were pulling all this stuff, but today I think most media outlets are pretty aware of what the industry is up to. I think there's definitely like a role there for media to play in terms of informing the public and not being a willing tool in a propaganda campaign.

Speaking of willing tools in propaganda campaigns, I was pretty surprised when you mentioned in your podcast that years ago, the New York Times published a press release from Ivy Lee (Rockefeller’s PR guy) essentially verbatim.

There's an archive of Ivy Lee's papers at Princeton, and there's a bunch of these notices that they would send to the press. They would handwrite a letter to the person specifically telling them, like, look, this is just for your information, don't print it. The whole way the newspapers handled it initially was just to print every statement that they had. It's so crazy to think about, but it hadn't been done before. If journalists wanted to know something, they had to dig around and get people at the company to talk to them. So, for a company to be like, "here's all of the information," initially, reporters were like, "Oh, this is great. Thanks. Like they're being so transparent. How wonderful." In fact, it was just a way to control the story. It took [journalists] a while to be like, "Wait a minute," you know?

People talk about how Big Oil took from Big Tobacco’s playbook. But as you explain in “Drilled,” Big Oil really was the first test case for this kind of PR campaign.

The scientists were all hired by people, and those strategies were all crafted by people. And those were mostly PR people. There hasn't really been that much reported on the PR firms that actually came up with these strategies and then found the scientists and created the fake think tanks for those behind the scenes. The Big Tobacco Big Oil story is really interesting because there's definitely various moments in history where they are sharing information. There's a whole bunch of crossover and a whole lot of parallel evolution. But pretty conclusively, the oil guys were doing these things first. Even the Tobacco Institute, which is what pushed a lot of the fake science early on, was modeled after the American Petroleum Institute. They got advice on it from the API guys.

People [often] want a linear narrative, but the reality with oil and tobacco is that they mostly evolved in parallel and were constantly influencing each other and talking to each other a lot. Oftentimes, using the same PR firms and deploying similar strategies. On science denial, that was a strategy that the tobacco industry honed and then the oil guys copied. But there's a bunch of these other propaganda tactics that the tobacco guys got from oil too.

How do you hope the podcast will tackle the impact of fossil fuel PR and help listeners understand it better?

In general, I think it's important for people to understand how much a lot of the things that we take for granted about how the world works and how energy works and how the economy works are actually ideas that have been very intentionally placed there by industry folks who have a goal in mind, which is to keep doing what they're doing and avoid regulation. It's a for-profit industry. They're going to do whatever they can do to get profits out of their assets for as long as possible. And if they didn't do that, they would be failing their shareholders. So, it is up to the public and the government to hold them accountable to other goals if that's what we as a society decide we want.

One thing that people have to remember is that anything the industry says is geared towards, how do we continue to avoid stranding our assets? That's their main goal. If they're talking about algae, for example, algae biofuels are very helpful to them because it can be used in combustion engines. It doesn't require a massive shifting of infrastructure away from what they've used for fossil fuels. Or like carbon capture is a big favorite of theirs because it would basically extend their license to continue burning fossil fuels. It's this way of being aware of what their angle is. That doesn't mean that carbon capture isn't worth researching and developing, because that's the tricky thing, is they say, "Oh, well, what are you anti-carbon capture?" No, I'm not. But okay, why is carbon capture the thing that the bulk of research funding has gone towards? Is it actually because it's more promising? Or is it because it's the thing the industry is funding the most, because it will extend their livelihoods?

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Published on Feb 05, 2020