FTI Consulting called out for energy-related comms efforts

The agency said it conforms to all industry ethical standards and practices.

FTI strategic communications leader Mark McCall.
FTI strategic communications leader Mark McCall.

WASHINGTON: FTI Consulting is reportedly under fire for allegedly deceptive advocacy efforts on behalf of energy companies and is facing backlash from some clients as a result.

Former employees have alleged, according to The New York Times, that FTI created a fake Facebook persona, strategized on how to derail online climate conversations, compiled intelligence on climate advocates and managed campaigns that were purportedly grassroots efforts but were actually funded by energy companies.

In the wake of The New York Times article posted Wednesday, FTI client the Carbon Disclosure Project suspended its relationship with the agency and other clients such as Morningstar and environmental, social and governance company MSCI said they are reviewing FTI’s activities, according to the Financial Times.

FTI created a fake Facebook user called “Susan” to monitor climate activists. Susan's Facebook friends included one current and one ex-FTI staffer, The New York Times claimed.

The account was created by a staffer in FTI’s strategic communications group on behalf of drilling company Apache Energy, which was attempting to launch a drilling project near a Texas state park, The New York Times reported.

The agency also tracked the efforts of activists and organizers. In one instance, a purported internal FTI document leaked to The New York Times listed groceries and camp supplies being used by the activists. The information was meant to reveal the size of the organizer’s camp near the Apache Energy drilling site. 

In addition, the strategic comms group was alleged to have developed a list of techniques intended to influence public discussion of climate issues and energy companies.

A purportedly internal FTI document supplied to the paper listed out a series of tactics including something called “Dog Typing on a Keyboard,” where a poster to an internet discussion forum deliberately uses “very poor grammar, spelling and punctuation and posts frequently to clutter up the thread and make it hard to read.” 

“It is important that we say — loud and clear — that FTI Consulting conforms to all industry ethical standards and practices,” said FTI spokesman Matthew Bashalany in a statement emailed to PRWeek.

Bashalany added that FTI’s rules of practice specifically prohibit creating fake social media accounts and state, “We will not impersonate others online, employ fake social media profiles or use online pseudonyms in connection with our work.” 

In his statement to The New York Times, Bashalany said the staffer who created the Facebook account was no longer with FTI.

Bashalany also told the NYT that FTI senior managers were unaware of the document detailing the tactics and it was not used to influence the firm's work.

In his statement to PRWeek, Bashalany did not address the Carbon Disclosure Project’s decision to suspend its work with FTI or other client fallout mentioned in the Financial Times article.

In addition to the Facebook profile and the techniques document, The New York Times outlined FTI’s involvement with several advocacy groups including the Texans for Natural Gas, the Arctic Energy Center, and Main Street Investors Coalition. The groups appeared, the Times wrote, to be “efforts to amplify local voices or speak up for regular people.”

The website for Texans for Natural Gas discloses that the group is “supported by three of the state's leading energy companies — Apache Corp, EOG Resources and XTO Energy.” The websites for the Arctic Energy Center and Main Street Investors Coalition appear to have been taken down. However, snapshots of both sites housed on the Internet Wayback Machine archive show both organizations also disclosed their connections to the energy industry.

Also, the NYT wrote that FTI staffers worked on two websites Energy In Depth and Western Wire, which produced pro-industry articles on energy and climate issues, including fracking. Both organizations also disclose their ties to the energy industry on their websites.

“We are transparent about how the programs we work on are sponsored and supported,” Bashalany wrote in an emailed statement to PRWeek.

In October, FTI Consulting’s strategic communications segment posted a Q3 organic revenue drop of 11.7% to $53 million. In 2019, revenue at FTI grew 9% to $243.1 million, according to PRWeek’s Agency Business Report.

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