Communications in a climate crisis: why Asian PR firm Vero cut ties with fossil fuel firms

Bangkok-based PR agency Vero says there's no excuse for working for fossil fuel brands — even those pivoting to clean energy. "We're in a crisis. There is no time for a journey," says Vero CEO Brian Griffin.

Vero signed the Clean Creatives pledge
Vero CEO Brian Griffin and COO Raphael Lachkar. The agency received more briefs from fossil fuel clients after it took a pledge to avoid working with them. Image: Vero

In January, Vero became the first Asian public relations agency to publicly declare that it would not work for fossil fuel companies.

The Bangkok-based firm said it would refuse any future contracts with fossil fuel firms, trade associations or front groups by taking the Clean Creatives pledge.

Clean Creatives is a movement that started in the United States in 2020 to pressure PR and advertising agencies to cut ties with dirty energy companies.

Founded by a former 350.org environmental campaigner, Clean Creatives wants to do what health campaigners did to the tobacco advertising in the 1970s, and take fossil fuels marketing out of the public eye where it can do less harm.

Comms Declare is a non-profit attempting the same feat in Australia, where the movement has attracted the support of 80 agency and 340 individual members, and is pushing for a ban on fossil fuels advertising.

Vero was founded in 2007 by American Brian Griffin, a former director of the Thailand office of New York-headquartered PR firm Hill & Knowlton, which counts oil giant ExxonMobil among its clients.

Griffin tells Eco-Business that the decision to quit fossil fuels clients was fairly easy. It aligned with the agency’s mission — to tell progressive stories about Southeast Asian brands — and was backed by his staff. Besides, the agency didn’t have much exposure to oil, gas or coal companies anyway.

The PR industry is going through one of the best times in its history … Agencies can afford to make this choice [to cut ties with fossil fuel clients].

Brian Griffin, chief executive, Vero

Griffin says more PR firms could afford not to work on fossil fuels brands, because the PR industry is going through a growth phase and is enjoying healthy revenues.

He rejects that notion that some fossil fuels firms should be given a break if they are starting to shift away from dirty energy towards renewables, and that they deserve to be provided with communications support on their “journey”.

“We’re in a crisis. There is no time for a journey,” he says.

Vero, which has 200 staff, offices in Indonesia, the Philippines, Myanmar Vietnam and Thailand, and a client list including Tencent, Grab, TikTok, Intel, Booking.com, Reckitt and Estee Lauder, is now among 200 creative firms that have taken the Clean Creatives pledge.

In this interview, Griffin — along with the agency’s chief operating officer Raphael Lachkar and strategy director Mra Than — shares insights about the opportunity cost of walking away from fossil fuels clients, why the movement has been slow to take off in Asia and why quitting fossil fuel clients isn’t just a PR stunt.

What prompted you to decide to avoid working with fossil fuels clients?

Raphael Lachkar: In 2020, when our team grew bigger than 100 people, we thought about our role as an employer and the sort of company people would want to work for and with. We noticed the Clean Creatives movement, we found it compelling and thought that it aligned with our mission — which is to tell stories of progress from Southeast Asian companies.

Interestingly, after we took the pledge, perhaps because we were bigger in size by then, we started to receive more and more briefs from fossil fuel companies — which we turned down. 

What do you say to critics who say that declaring you won’t work for fossil fuels clients is just a PR stunt? Isn’t it only the bigger networks like Ogilvy and Edelman who have the scale to work for fossil fuel clients?

Raphael LachkarIn a sense you’re right. We signed the pledge because we could. We didn’t have much exposure to fossil fuel clients. We’re independent. We operate in growing economies. Saying no to those brands wouldn’t jeopardise our business. In a different context and in a different economic environment, I don’t know if we would have done it as easily.

Brian Griffin: The PR industry as a whole is going through one of the best times in its history. Growth rates around the world are good. Although I appreciate that there’s nuance here, I think agencies can afford to make this choice [to avoid working for fossil fuels clients], even if they haven’t. I don’t want to judge other agencies, but most are in a good business environment…

But this is all about a moral judgement PR agencies are making, isn’t it? We are in a climate emergency and big networks could afford to walk away from fossil fuel clients if they wanted to…

Brian Griffin: I’m not defending them [the large PR networks], but I think that they would say: ‘There are some companies in the [fossil fuel] sector that are trying to do the right thing, and by having good communications we can accelerate that process. Sustainability is a journey.’

But the other side of the story is, we are in a crisis and we should stop supporting fossil fuel companies now — there is no time for a journey. We don’t have time to figure out the nuance of what might be okay [because an oil company is trying to pivot away from fossil fuels] and what is not. We are just not going to do this work anymore. 

Southeast Asia will be harder hit than almost anywhere by climate change. So why has the movement to ditch fossil fuels clients been so slow to take off here?

Brian Griffin: There are lots of agencies that would commit to this, but just don’t know about it. For many agencies, it’s very easy decision to take. Most PR professionals will support it. Before we made the pledge, we had internal discussions about the clients we didn’t want to work for, and fossil fuel companies were among them. 

We also think that PR agencies are often built around the belief that they are there to support organisations whose reputations suffer, and rightly so. In that frame of mind, it may seem less natural to discard whole industries.

Are there people in the agency who also don’t want to work on other types of “sin” industries, like junk food, tobacco and weapons?

Brian Griffin: In Thailand, in particular, there are some people who are uncomfortable working with alcohol brands. And so for those people, we say of course you don’t have to work on those accounts, if you’re uncomfortable doing so.

Does your agency work with alcohol brands?

Brian Griffin: Yeah, we do. Our job is to encourage responsible communications. That’s simply good business. Irresponsible communications gets called out so quickly these days.

What’s the opportunity cost of not working with fossil fuels clients in a region like Southeast Asia, where there are numerous large — and well-paying — fossil fuel brands?

Brian Griffin: It would be interesting to look at the market capitalisation of the biggest fossil fuel companies in the world over the last 15 years. Until the last six months, you’d see a dramatic reduction in their economic impact. I think the economy has shifted away from those companies. I don’t think they’re as lucrative [as clients] as you might think.

Will you use your fossil fuel-free credentials in pitches? Is it a competitive advantage?

Brian Griffin: When we go through the procurement process with clients, sustainability is sometimes part of the discussion. They will ask us about our sustainability policies and we will tell them about the Clean Creatives pledge. Does that give us extra weighting? I doubt it, because I think they’re just not aware of it. 

Some think that big advertisers like Unilever will soon start asking their agencies what they are doing to reduce their emissions. When do you think this will happen?

Mra Than: We’re already seeing this in the social impact sector. Vero works with quite a few NGOs. In Myanmar, we had a discussion with [children’s charity] Save the Children about the brands we work with, and whether they are damaging to the environment or people’s health.

I think a lot of NGOs have caught up to the conversation about fossil fuel communications, and want to push it forward with agencies. But it hasn’t caught up to the corporate brand sector yet.

Recently Southeast Asia’s largest bank, DBS, was called out for greenwashing a commitment to quit fossil fuel. What’s your view on greenwashing and the role of communications agencies?

Raphael Lachkar: The biggest responsibility of agencies involved in conversations around the climate crisis is ensuring that communications are responsible and accountable. Very often, greenwashing stems from communication advisors. Awareness of greenwashing is still relatively low in Southeast Asia, and there is a need for guidelines in how communication professionals approach the issue. 

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