At climate talks, the media message is a job for PR professionals

PARIS (Reuters) - They are a shadowy presence at the U.N. climate talks in Paris, holding no official standing and granting no interviews.

From L-R, Xie Zhenhua, Special Representative for Climate Change of China, Prakash Javadekar, Minister of State for Environment, Forest and Climate Change of India, and Edna Bomo Molewa, Minister of Environmental Affairs of South Africa, attend a news conference during the World Climate Change Conference 2015 (COP21) at Le Bourget, near Paris, France, December 8, 2015. REUTERS/Jacky Naegelen

But global public relations firms such as Edelman and Fleishman Hillard are working there behind the scenes, hired by countries ranging from Gulf oil producers to developing nations seeking to manage their climate change message.

For evidence, take India. In the past, Western media have portrayed it as one of the biggest obstacles to a global deal, insisting that rich countries must come up with billions of dollars to help poor ones shift away from dirty fossil fuels.

But India’s negotiators in Paris have found sweeter soundbites for hard-line positions. “We are here to propose, not oppose,” says India’s environment minister Prakash Javadekar.

It is a deft move after the ill-fated 2009 summit in Copenhagen when it did not engage with non-Indian media outlets.

For Paris, the Indian government hired Edelman to make its officials more accessible to international journalists.

India’s pavilion on the conference grounds, with an elaborate water and light feature and interactive displays of its clean energy projects, has become a magnet for reporters and delegates taking selfies.

“We’ve been interacting with the media and addressing some of the inaccurate reports that have come out about India,” says Shri Ashok Lavasa, secretary of the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change. “Misconceptions arise from a lack of information.”

Edelman declined to discuss its work with the Indian government.

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“The Indian PR machine is incredible,” said one frustrated European delegate, acknowledging that the European Union’s need for cautious consensus among its 28-members makes it hard to compete with India’s bold, simple message to speak for developing nations.

Saudi Arabia, a major oil producer perennially accused of gumming up climate agreements, has hired French PR company Medeis to help with its communications. Medeis manages the Saudis’ English-language website that highlights the kingdom’s research and development of renewable and low-carbon technologies.

The United Arab Emirates has hired APCO International, a company specialising in public safety communications, to shine a light on renewable energy investments.

And Brazil has employed Fleishman Hillard to offer interviews portraying it as a mediator in climate talks.

None of the PR firms responded to requests for interviews.

The professionalisation of climate messaging is driven partly by fear of a re-run of the disastrous images of finger-pointing and failure that colored the Copenhagen conference.

It also illustrates the exponential expansion of social media since then. Some countries with small delegations have hired firms to ensure they can hold their own on Twitter and Facebook.

“The countries here are just so thinly spread and in terms of their technical capacity it is not a level playing field with other delegations,” said Katherine Mansell, media officer for International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) and spokesperson for the Less Developed Countries (LDC) group.

Indeed, many small countries in Paris are relying on outside professionals for guidance on their negotiating strategies too.

Afghanistan’s delegation of 12 turns to Ian McGregor, a Scottish professor from an Australian university who met some of them at the Doha talks in 2012.

Since then McGregor, who specialises in the history of climate negotiations, has helped draft the Afghans’ national climate plan and coordinates media coverage for them and their partners in the LDC bloc of 48 most climate-vulnerable countries.

The LDCs have also brought a dedicated pro-bono media coordinator on board from the London-based International Institute of Environment and Development (IIED) to help them compete with staffs of hundreds on U.S. and EU delegations.

The Marshall Islands and the bloc of 44 island states rely on pro-bono advice from New York-based Independent Diplomat, a non-profit consultancy started in 2004 by former British diplomat Carne Ross.

The agency makes former diplomats and others with international experience available to clients that have included elements of the Syrian opposition (Independent Diplomat says it holds clients to a strict human rights standard) and South Sudan.

Its website posts a quote from Marshall Islands Foreign Minister Tony de Brum, crediting International Diplomat with helping “level the playing field by advising on diplomatic strategy, securing press coverage, and helping us get a seat at the table.”

Independent Diplomat declined to comment for this story. But the Marshall Islands and its allies among low-lying countries have translated their fears of being swamped by rising seas into one of the most resonant messages in the climate change debate.

U.S. President Barack Obama took time after his opening speech on the first day of talks on Nov. 30 to meet separately with leaders of the group, promising $30 million in climate risk insurance schemes for vulnerable countries in the Pacific, Central America and Africa.

IIED’s Mansell says the countries she represents need all the help they can get. “I have no illusion as to what I am up against in terms of airtime,” she says.

Reporting by Valerie Volcovici; Editing by Bruce Wallace/Ruth Pitchford