Exxon and Climate Change: Influencer Relations and the Dark Art of Doublespeak

By Bill Coletti, CEO, Kith

Critical Takeaways:

  • Exxon can claim to be a leader in climate science, but also has the resources to combat legislation confronting climate change.
  • By identifying the most important voices in a network, Exxon’s anti-climate science messaging has proliferated effectively.

Exxon Mobil

Exxon Mobil is consistently one of the most profitable companies in the world, much to the chagrin of environmentalists everywhere. These profits have been built on decades of research and investment on behalf of Exxon, as well as a friendly regulatory environment on the part of state and federal authorities.


Recently, several media outlets began reporting on the fact that Exxon’s researchers admitted and acknowledged the existence of climate change as far back as the 1970s. For some, this information enraged their sensibilities due to Exxon’s longstanding relationship with anti-climate science lobbyists and organizations.


But Exxon has publicly maintained that they support research into climate change, as well as support for a revenue-neutral carbon tax, something that has been vilified by voices on the right as everything from hippie nonsense to outright socialism.


So if Exxon is transparent and says all of the right things – albeit quite combatively – why are they still seen as propagating anti-scientific messages?


The long-assumed reason for this has finally been established as fact, in the form of research published by Justin Farrell, an associate professor at Yale. The research delved into two decades of IRS records for Exxon and Koch Industries (an organization that doesn’t feel the need to respect climate science at all), and cross-referenced these records with individuals or organizations that have published material specifically to raise doubts about climate change.


What Farrell discovered was that Exxon and Koch had identified people and organizations whom were influential in certain conversations, whose messages could be relied on to pull through to the maximum amount of readers and secondary publications. The Cato Institute, Heritage Foundation and Heartland Institute are examples of such organizations. What Farrell then found was that there was a direct correlation between money given by Exxon and Koch and an influx in climate-related messaging.


This is exactly the same tactic that communications firms use for public relations outreach. For instance, we at Kith have proprietary access to the influencer identification tool PathAR, which we use for far less ethically questionable endeavors.


Exxon has taken all the right steps to forward the right messages regarding their public stances, which they have dedicated a microsite to as part of their online presence. They also take a combative stance to any publications that publish messages they disagree with. They are also large enough that their communications department can claim plausible deniability from the actions of their public affairs department, which has used political donations to influential voices to foster doubt and skepticism among the American public.