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Corporate PR: the Good, the Bad, and the Greedy over Climate Change

Back in a 2004 episode of the Nickelodeon hit show Drake & Josh, Drake discovers that his stepbrother Josh has a natural talent for playing billiards. Using this knowledge, Drake decides to start making bets behind his brother’s back, hustling people out of their money and belongings. Stating that Josh is bad at billiards, Drake would convince the would-be victims to would take the bet, and then they would lose said bet. When Josh realizes what Drake is doing, he confronts his stepbrother. This leads to Drake’s famous line: “I said I’m sorry I didn’t tell you I was gambling, [but] I definitely want to do it some more.”

Now, you may be wondering why I’m bringing up a reference to a TV show from 15 years ago, and I’ll tell you why. While that line was played for laughs on a sitcom, it’s a pretty realistic take on how corporations operate today. There are many cases in which big companies such as Google or Facebook get caught doing something unscrupulous, publicly apologize for the sake of public relations (PR), maybe pay a fine, and then continue to do the same thing. In September 2019, Google was fined $170 million because it was found to have violated children’s privacy on YouTube by tracking their viewing habits and displaying targeted ads to them.

Let’s take a step back and dissect that last sentence. Google and YouTube were found to be guilty of violating the privacy of young children by manipulating what they viewed on YouTube for the sole purpose of gaining advertising dollars. According to an article in the New York Times. “To settle the charges, YouTube agreed to the $170 million penalty, with $136 million going to the trade commission and $34 million to New York State.” As of November 2019, Google’s net worth was estimated to be $300 billion. If my math checks out, that means the fine of $170 million was only 0.056% of their total estimated net worth. To Google and YouTube, that fine may as well have been pocket change. The fine they were forced to pay is the equivalent of little Timmy throwing the family cat out the second story window, and his parents taking 50 cents out of his allowance as punishment. It is not a large enough amount lost to make him learn a lesson.  He will definitely do it again when he sees that the punishment is so minuscule compared to the heinousness of the crime.

At the same time, according to the same article in the New York Times.   YouTube promised to “create a system that asks video channel owners to identify the children’s content they post so that targeted ads are not placed in such videos.” While that may all seem well and good, what that boils down to is, “We’re sorry we were caught. Only because we were caught are we going to do something to fix this.” This is a run-of-the-mill PR patch-up. To save face, YouTube will now attempt to implement a fix to this privacy breach. Now let’s apply this logic to corporations who continue to line their pockets while promising to take on climate change.

As humans continue to push the production of energy away from fossil fuels to renewable energy, something that seems to be missing is appropriate retaliation against companies that continue to use and lobby for fossil fuel consumption for the sake of profit. As long as fossil fuels are available, and government fines are essentially pocket change compared with the profits made by these corporations for using fossil fuels, this cycle will continue. To their credit, several large oil companies including Exxon Mobil have pledged a total of $1 billion toward climate lobbying and ads to promote renewable energy. This action seems like an amazing thing for oil companies to do, considering the use of renewable energy may significantly reduce their oil production and profits. While it may seem altruistic, this may just be a public relations tactic to get the public talking about how good of a company Exxon Mobil is.

Now let me clear something up here: PR stunts are not inherently bad things. If a company does something for the sake of publicity, but it still helps the people and the environment, then it is a win-win situation. The company makes more money for itself, and the environment suffers less in the long run. The caveat here is that the PR stunt cannot be short-term; that is to say, it should not be done for a short period of time just to make a quick buck. Even if Starbucks’ and McDonald’s’ move to ditch plastic straws, cutlery, and plastic bags were for the sake of good publicity, they need to keep their promise for the long-run as well. Likewise, even if Exxon Mobil’s lobbying for clean energy started off as a PR stunt, the company should still keep its promise long after public attention dwindles. If bigger corporations took the initiative and finally understood that short-term gains don’t translate to sustainability, neither for themselves as companies nor for our planet and people, then maybe we would have a good start to rebuild a better world.





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