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Coal Rep’s Climate Change Spin Sparks PR Ethics Debate

How does a PR rep handle the conflict inherent in representing The Alliance for Northwest Jobs and Exports, an organization created to increase coal exportation in the northwest US, with a history working for the EPA? The two organizations could not be more ideologically opposed to one another.

In this extremely off-the-record clip, Edelman VP Lauri Hennessey tells coal industry marketers how she navigates around the issue by using her EPA past to convince environmentally concerned audiences that more coal exports would not contribute to climate change. A couple of things are clear:


The clip may be a hit piece, but it’s also a revealing look into the way spin works in one particular case.

Here’s the key point in the conversation: “I worked with the EPA, and I pull that out with the right crowds…” to show that the group she’s representing now is “concerned about climate change”. This is true only in the sense that climate change informs the primary argument against expanding coal exports in the northwest. So yes, they’re concerned about it, just not in the way they want said audience to think they are.

PRSA fellow and professor Kirk Hazlett gave us his thoughts on the matter after the story made its way to the Huffington Post:

The Edelman/coal exports kerfuffle serves as a reminder to all that “ethical behavior” is difficult to define, especially in today’s global workplace, and even more difficult to enforce. While the Public Relations Society of America has a carefully-crafted and fairly comprehensive “Code of Ethics” that helps PR professionals navigate ethical minefields, the responsibility still lies on the individual practitioner’s shoulders for compliance. And, as the old saying goes, “To err is human.”

Now for the key question: what’s the most ethical way to address such conflicts?

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