October 04, 2022 from The DisInformation Chronicle
8 minute read

Are public relations firms a lot more involved in downplaying climate change, the dangers of pesticides, and the side effects of biopharmaceuticals—while beating back unpleasant questions about those issues—than they want you to know?

Clearly.

But if these PR firms are voices of major corporations, how can they expect to keep their names out of the headlines when they’re involved in some of the biggest corporate scandals of recent decades?

Well, they certainly try. Let me tell you the story of one of the most private—and powerful—of them: The Brunswick Group.

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Fairly Quiet

Mixed in amongst several hundred pages of fossil fuel company documents released by Congress a few weeks back were two emails by the Brunswick Group, a firm that the New York Times reported as “one of the most successful corporate public relations firms in the world.”

“They are fairly quiet about the organizations they represent,” reads a profile of Brunswick by a website that covers the PR industry. “But some that they have represented over the years include British Airways, Safeway, Standard Life, EMI, Marks & Spencer, and Newcastle United.”

At first glance, the Brunswick Group emails that Congress released appear anodyne: Brunswick’s Virginia Northington forwards a couple op-eds on climate change to several officials with BP.

However, congressional leaders complained that the documents show BP and other fossil fuel companies downplay efforts to address climate change. And indeed, picking through the bios of Brunswick and BP employees on the emails, you find that most of those carefully monitoring climate change media are actually involved in lobbying and litigation, not public relations.

For example, one Brunswick employee on the emails is attorney Ellen Moskowitz, often quoted in the media as a “BP spokesperson” since BP first hired Brunswick in 2010 to counter an onslaught of legal threats, including the congressional investigations and lawsuits that tore the company apart following the disastrous oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

Including Moskowitz on the email provides hints that BP remains immersed in a regulatory and legal crisis. To clarify, BP has been leaning on Brunswick for over a decade for litigation support as the company has lurched from disaster to catastrophe—first the oil spill in the Gulf, now looming climate change regulations that will shut down oil drilling.

But can making these emails public be worse for BP? Of course.

As The Brunswick Group massages BP’s legal problems, the fossil fuel company obviously doesn’t want investors to know that Brunswick has also provided public relations for Hakluyt, a private British spy firm exposed in dirty tactics for Monsanto. When Hakluyt’s documents were released during litigation a few years back, this only served to resurface BP’s own history with the firm—in 2001 BP was caught hiring Hakluyt to spy on environmental groups campaigning against oil drilling off the coast of Scotland.

After I emailed Brunswick Group’s Virginia Northington some questions about their contract with BP and what the work entails, I got a call from Tim Danaher in Brunswick’s London office. Danaher informed me that Brunswick does not discuss their clients. I then sent Brunswick a follow up email asking if they still provide public relations support for Hakluyt.

“As I said on the phone Paul, we don’t comment on our client relationships,” Danaher replied.

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No Comment But We Request Corrections

I first ran into The Brunswick Group in late 2019, when I wrote an investigation for HuffPost titled “Monsanto’s Spies” that delved into the agrichemical company’s long history of using shady tactics to attack critics and influence the media. At the time, Monsanto was facing a growing number of lawsuits over the dangers of the pesticide glyphosate, and during the litigation it became public that the company had employed Hakluyt, a British private investigative firm formed by two veteran MI6 spies in the mid-1990s.

Hakluyt keeps a low profile, but it is considered one of the world’s elite spy firms. News accounts and court documents have shed some light on its past clients, including Enron and BP; in 2001, the latter deployed a spy posing as a documentary filmmaker to track Greenpeace as it planned a climate change campaign.

The Monsanto document offers a rare insight into Hakluyt’s work, its tactics and political reach. In a sworn deposition for the trial, former Monsanto attorney Todd Rands testified that Hakluyt agents deliberately hid their links to Monsanto as they gathered information from high-ranking government officials in 2018, including a Trump White House policy adviser and senior officials at the Department of Agriculture and Environmental Protection Agency. 

“We wanted to make sure that we could hear things about ourselves that people might not say directly to us,” said Rands, who also notes in the deposition that he left Monsanto in January 2019 and was then consulting for FTI.

One of the groups quoted in Hakluyt’s report to Monsanto was the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), so I sent the report to the NRDC and asked for comment. The environmental group replied that they were appalled at being spied on.

“Instead of taking responsibility for their impacts on people and pollinator populations, Monsanto chose to hire private investigators to spy on the NGOs standing up for public health and the environment,” an attorney with NRDC wrote to me

I then spent several days phoning and emailing Hakluyt employees in their New York offices, asking them to explain themselves, only to be contacted by a Brunswick Group employee in London named Jack Emery.

“I understand that you have reached out to our client Hakluyt recently,” Emery emailed me, sending along several questions about what I was writing. I then emailed Emery and Hakluyt to explain that our story concerned the PR and private investigative firms that Monsanto and Bayer had hired over the years and how NRDC said they had been spied on by Hakluyt.

After I sent Emery and Hakluyt a few questions for the story, they responded with a “no comment” about Hakluyt’s methods and clients. The Brunswick Group’s tactic was clear: ask me the reporter a bunch of questions about my story, and when I sent them questions for the article, respond with “no comment.”

A few days later, HuffPost published “Monsanto Spies.” And then the harassment started.

Shortly after the article posted, Brunswick’s Emery started in with demands for corrections. Even though Monsanto’s own attorney testified under oath in a trial that Hakluyt hid who they were working for when gathering information, this apparently did not qualify as spying.

I’m pretty used to being harried and hassled, so I contacted my editors about Emery’s demands and then tried to ignore him. I also emailed Hakluyt more questions so they could explain how they gathered information in secret, yet this wasn’t spying according to their own special definition of the word spying. Meanwhile, Brunswick’s Emery continued to badger me with a stream of emails, looping in more and more editors at HuffPost, including the Corrections Editor, UK Editor, and even the Editor-in-Chief.

Suspicious about what Emery was up to and who he really represented, I finally started digging around to see who else Brunswick worked for and found that Brunswick also represented Bayer in their $66 billion acquisition of Monsanto.

I then emailed Brunswick’s Emery, “Jack, you keep sending these emails. Who is your client, Hakluyt or Bayer? Also, does the Brunswick Group represent Bayer?”

This set off a number of sputtering emails as Emery tried to keep talking about Hakluyt. “I am not in a position to say anything about Bayer or who represents them,” Emery wrote to me.

Brunswick’s harassment had now gone on for almost a week, with multiple demands for a correction and zero transparency on who Brunswick Group actually represented. I then asked Emery to again explain if Brunswick Group had a contract with Bayer, and he finally ceased the harassment.

My experience taught me that Brunswick Group works with some of the seediest corporations you can find and will aggressively harass journalists who report on those same companies. They also strive to remain in the background, demanding answers from journalists reporting a story, while responding with “no comment” to questions.

So what is Brunswick doing for BP?

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Brunswick Group and BP’s Climate Change Problems

A few days after Congress released the fossil fuel documents, climate writer Bill McKibben pounced on the Brunswick Group emails that discussed an essay he had written for the Los Angeles Times on the dangers of fossil fuels.

The documents show how mercenary and devious the companies have been, pretending to back climate action like the Paris climate accords but in fact working to make sure they are a dead letter.

But I confess I got stuck on the very first document the committee released, which you can see above. I got stuck because it’s…about me, and who doesn’t, in their heart of hearts, love/hate reading what people secretly think of you?

McKibben then provided a quick overview of the Brunswick Group emails, but he seems to have missed their importance. The emails aren’t proof that BP is dismissing or denigrating the importance of climate change. On the contrary, they prove the opposite.

BP is quite alarmed about climate change and what it means for them legally. This is obvious by examining who at Brunswick is tracking climate writers like Bill McKibben and who Brunswick is alerting at BP.

The email was sent by Virginia Northington, whose Brunswick Group bio says she works on “litigation and crisis mandates and has experience in complex civil litigation, government investigations, and regulatory situations on both sides of the Atlantic.” At the bottom of the email, you see that Ms. Northington looped in Brunswick Group attorney Ellen Moskowitz, who has counselled “both public and private companies on critical enterprise-threatening issues, including some of the largest civil, criminal and regulatory cases of the last fifteen years.”

Does this sound like people involved in boilerplate PR—spitting out press releases while spinning journalists?

If you’re still not convinced that BP is horrified that climate change is a major legal and regulatory problem, guess who is also on the email? Mixed in amongst a couple of the BP public relations types you would expect to keep track of McKibben’s writing are a bunch of BP’s government lobbying and legal experts:

Joe Ellis: No longer with BP, at the time of the emails, Ellis ran BP Government Affairs in the United States.

Ray Dempsey: President of the BP Foundation.

Mary Streett: Before running BP’s communications in the United States and Latin America, Streett ran BP’s Government Affairs in the United States.

Jessica Gonzalez: Senior Counsel, BP North America.

Mary Perkins: No longer with BP, at the time of the email, Perkins was a “senior paralegal” with BP. She is also listed as the US Chair of the BP Foundation.

Mike Nash: Head of the BP's London-based Legal team that advises BP Group and its leadership, businesses and functions on all aspects of environmental, health & safety and security law, policies and strategic HSSE legal risk management globally.

Robert Stout: Now a Senior Fellow at the Duke Nicholas Institute, at the time, Stout was BP’s Vice President and Head of Regulatory Affairs.

Rebecca Raftery: Senior attorney at BP.

Rachel Stutz: Now an attorney at Meta, at the time of the emails, Stutz was BP’s Chief Counsel of Communications and External Affairs.

Karen Gase:  According to her LinkedIn account, Gase is a “proven and battle-tested law department leader with deep experience managing the largest and most complex civil litigation through an extended and unprecedented crisis.” Gase managed BP litigation, before she took over and led BP’s “historic, multi-billion-dollar, bet-the-company civil litigation arising out of the Deepwater Horizon” oil spill disaster.

Seems like a whole lot of legal and lobbying expertise at Brunswick and BP brought to bear on something as mundane as an op-ed by Bill McKibben, no?

In fact, Brunswick Group has been working to dig BP out of the legal problems since at least 2010. Back then, Politico reported that BP hired Brunswick Group as part of an aggressive “lobby and PR blitz” following BP’s disastrous oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

By January 2011, Wall Street Journal reporter Stephen Power wrote that a presidential commission concluded the accident resulted from systemic failures by oil companies and regulators:

The blowout "was not the product of a series of aberrational decisions made by rogue industry or government officials that could not have been anticipated or expected to occur again," according to a chapter of the report released Wednesday. "Rather, the root causes are systemic and, absent significant reform in both industry practices and government policies, might well recur."

The report is likely to turn attention back to BP after several months in which the oil giant sought to turn the spotlight on its contractors.

Months afterwards, Power left the Wall Street Journal to join the Brunswick Group, eventually advising BP on communications related to litigation over the Deepwater Horizon accident. Yes, that happened.

In years that followed, Brunswick’s Ellen Moskowitz was widely quoted as a “BP spokesperson” who either did not respond to reporters’ questions or whose basic response was “no comment”

BP spokeswoman Ellen Moskowitz said in an email to The Associated Press that the London-based company had no comment. January 18, 2012, Associated Press

Ellen Moskowitz, a spokesperson for BP, declined to comment on the proposed accord beyond the joint statement. February 27, 2012, Bloomberg

Ellen Moskowitz, a BP spokeswoman, declined to comment. May, 3, 2012, Reuters

Ellen Moskowitz, BP’s litigation spokeswoman, declined comment on the ruling. October 2, 2012, Bloomberg

Ellen Moskowitz, a BP spokeswoman, didn’t immediately respond to a call and e-mail seeking comment. October 15, 2012, Bloomberg

Ellen Moskowitz, an outside BP spokeswoman, had no immediate comment on the filing by the spill victims. Moskowitz is a partner with the New York-based Brunswick Group. April 2, 2013, Bloomberg

"BP has no comment other than that the order speaks for itself," spokeswoman Ellen Moskowitz said. July 27, 2015, Nola.com

During the summer of 2014, the U.S. Chemical Safety Board released a report on the Deepwater Horizon accident that found although there had been regulatory improvements, more safety needed to be done. “This results in potential safety gaps in U.S. offshore operations and leaves open the possibility of another similar catastrophic accident.”

When the findings were released, Bloomberg reported that BP spokeswoman Ellen Moskowitz “didn’t immediately respond to an e-mailed request for comment.”

Today, The Brunswick Group maintains an entire Energy and Resources practice, with partners scattered around the globe—from London, to Dallas, to Dubai. But since Brunswick doesn’t discuss clients, it’s hard to tell what they are up to.

In a last ditch effort for answers, I contacted Brunswick yesterday with one final question but received no response.

“I am surprised that the press don’t ask tougher questions,” said one Brunswick employee, in a 2015 article on the relationship between PR and the media. “And I’m disappointed by that.”

Agreed.

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NOTE TO READERS: If you’ve received harassment from PR executives or have your own stories in this area to tell, please share below. Or contact me privately by email.

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https://disinformationchronicle.substack.com/p/the-brunswick-group-another-pr-firm
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