Image: Imitation fracking rig spouts flames at protest. Credit: Stefan Rousseau/PA Images, all rights reserved.
In January I wrote about how the fracking industry could take advantage of a dirty Brexit. But it goes further than direct lobbying and trying to hijack the Brexit narrative. Companies are also enlisting the help of PR agencies who are hiring former ministerial and even prime-ministerial advisors to lobby for them.
The UK’s PR and lobbying industry is the second biggest in the world, worth £7.5 billion according to Spinwatch. PR agencies will work to shape the public agenda in their clients’ interest, including some of the world’s most environmentally destructive companies.
According to the most recent Public Affairs and Lobbying Register, fracking firm Cuadrilla hires Hanover communications consultancy, whose Chief Executive is John Major’s former press secretary Charles Lewington, to help promote its work. This relationship goes back until at least 2013.
Cuadrilla is the company wanting to frack in Lancashire, Yorkshire and the South of England – including at Preston New Road and Balcombe. The company must have been reassured to see Hanover’s 2016 launch of a Brexit advisory team designed to help businesses “effectively navigate developments on both sides of the channel and protect your bottom line”.
Fracking giant INEOS have hired public relations and communications firm Burson Marsteller to help them with influencing government.
Meg Powell-Chandler, a former special adviser to UK business and energy secretary Greg Clark, was a Director at Burson Marsteller until February this year when, according to her LinkedIn profile, she moved into a special adviser role at the Department of Education. Her Westminster connections are strong; she has held a number of special adviser roles in government departments and was the Conservative party candidate for Birmingham Northfield in the 2017.
In 2015, the Chief Executive of Burson Marsteller’s UK office – Stephen Day (who was once a Tory special adviser to ex-shadow trade and industry ministers, John Redwood) – boasted about its ‘current and controversial’ clients to Public Affairs News saying: “We’re not afraid of controversy. Ineos are leading the way on fracking, we’re leading their work on fracking.”
After Lancashire County Council voted to reject fracking at two of Cuadrilla’s sites in July 2015, Burson-Marsteller published a blog post by manager Lee Wright titled “A nation of NIMBYs?” in which he complained about “the latest examples of the national interest crashing on the rocks of localism” and that “In the age of social media, well-funded and well-organised NGOs and campaign groups, it is all-to-easy for politicians to be cowed by those who shout the loudest.”
Another government adviser who has slipped into a lobbying career is Tomos Davies, who is an associate partner at Newgate Communications. Before he joined the company in 2016 he was a special adviser to the Secretary of State for Wales, working with Stephen Crabb then his successor Alun Cairns. He was also a 2017 election candidate for the Conservatives in Ynys Môn (Anglesey).
Davies is profiled as part of Newgate’s ‘Brexit Service’ which helps companies to be “in position to intervene to protect their interests should they come under threat.” The brochure about this service describes “integrated communications support” and says that it can “strategically position the organisation’s response to Brexit, including engaging with and influencing UK Government and opinion formers” in order to “inform the Government’s negotiating strategy and protect your company’s best interests.”
Third Energy has been repeatedly warned about permit breaches at its site in Kirby Misperton site, although plans for fracking there are now on hold.
Pagefield, whose clients include Centrica, are one of the agencies who are recorded to have met directly with a Brexit minister – David Davis MP, the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, in December 2016 to discuss the impact of the UK’s exit from the EU, presumably on the company’s clients. During 2017 Centrica contributed $16.9 million to help keep Cuadrilla afloat and bring them into an annual profit for the first time. Cuadrilla Resources Holdings Ltd made a profit of $5.457 million in 2017, while they made a loss of $11.5 million for the same period in 2016.
It is notoriously difficult to find complete lists of PR company clients. The information here is largely based on what is relatively easy to reach (with thanks to Powerbase). Lobbyists only need to declare their clients on the UK lobbying register if they directly contact a minister on their behalf. Lobbying of anyone else in government, as well as lobbying by corporations themselves, is exempt.
PR companies represent all sorts of organisations but their significant influence means that industries deeply unpopular with the general public, like fracking, will be enlisting their help to shift public perception and government policy to make Brexit work for them.