Neil Wallis and Sam Bowen: How we helped our client navigate the ‘Climategate’ media firestorm

The two comms specialists portrayed in last week’s BBC docu-drama ‘The Trick’ have spoken exclusively to PRWeek to explain, in their own words, how they helped their client deal with the media and political fallout caused by the ‘Climategate’ scandal in 2009.

Sam Bowen and Neil Wallis, as depicted in BBC docu-drama 'The Trick'
Sam Bowen and Neil Wallis, as depicted in BBC docu-drama 'The Trick'

Sam Bowen, then a corporate comms specialist, and ex-Fleet Street editor-turned-crisis expert Neil Wallis were brought in by the University of East Anglia to restore its reputation in the wake of a data theft from its Climatic Research Unit.

The theft spawned a media firestorm that threated to engulf the university, the CRU, and its lead scientist Professor Phil Jones. At stake was the credibility of climate science and who gets to tell the truth.

Now both men relive their experience of that time in their own words.

Sam Bowen, insight and strategy director, Red Consultancy

Sam Bowen
Sam Bowen

'The Trick', BBC1’s recent docu-drama about ‘Climategate’, brought back strong memories of my involvement in the events during 2009/10. The film marks the first time the central characters, Professor Phil Jones and his wife, Ruth, have gone on record, and Owen Sheers’ screenplay closely follows the true-life events which almost destroyed a man’s life and those of his family, temporarily tarnished scientific reputations and created devastating global consequences by undermining vital climate research.

When Neil Wallis and I first met Edward Acton, the Vice-Chancellor of University of East Anglia, home to the globally respected Climatic Research Unit, and Professor Trevor Davies, they spoke of a major cyber-attack, reams of leaked emails and documents, a blogosphere and media alight with climate change denial, death threats and their lead climate scientist, Professor Jones (brilliantly played in The Trick by Jason Watkins), personally suffering from a mass onslaught by global media.

The term ‘media firestorm’ has been attributed to the events but it doesn’t do any justice. The linked political landscape looked equally dire, with negotiations at COP15 in Copenhagen only a few weeks before our meeting ending in failure, The Guardian reporting at the time: “Talks condemned as climate scepticism in action”.

Less than two hours after that initial briefing, Neil and I were heading up to East Anglia. The first meeting with Professor Jones, in the Vice-Chancellor’s home, has been indelibly burnt into my memory. Here was a broken man if ever I saw one, and mentions of his deteriorating mental health and suicidal thoughts were obvious.

The relentlessness of the media and the evident lobbying by fossil fuel companies needing to stoke the fires of climate denial for commercial survival were in full force.

Neil and I read everything relevant from the media and blogosphere throughout that first night, to understand the position, and it was incredible to see how it had blown up so quickly.

To paraphrase a post-Climategate report, almost all media and political discussion about the hacked climate emails was based on soundbites publicised by professional sceptics and their blogs. In many cases, they were taken out of context and twisted to mean something they were never intended to.

We developed a multi-tiered crisis response which would cover both UK and US media – we needed to uphold the reputations of Professor Jones, the Climatic Research Unit and the University of East Anglia, especially in the US, a source of much research funding.

But we also needed to stand by the science on climate and rising planetary temperatures, to uphold the importance of many years of climate research.

We created a narrative that was quickly adopted by our client via significant media training sessions and clearly to run consistently across interviews, developed assets and act as the core commentary before a Parliamentary Select Committee.

The most vital part of this was taking complex scientific references and translating them into everyday language without losing their value, making the response easy to understand by as many as possible.

The truth is simple, as the saying goes.

Ultimately, this came down to a year-long war for the truth, which we eventually won – initially thanks to a defining interview with The Sunday Times and more throughout the campaign.

Following the Climategate events, research suggested how the damage caused by the hack had potentially set the fight against climate change back by up to 10 years. Leaked documents were shared to create the most havoc around COP15.

And, just a few days ago, the BBC reported on a huge leak of documents ahead of COP26 that reveal how countries are trying to change a crucial scientific report, asking the UN to play down the need to move away from fossil fuels.

To quote 'The Trick': “The truth, that’s what at stake here. And who gets to tell the truth about something that effects every single living thing on the planet.”

Neil Wallis, reputation management and media consultant

Neil Wallis
Neil Wallis

Almost by definition, good reputation management rarely makes headlines – if it is successful, then hopefully no one ever knows a reputation was at risk in the first place.

Sadly, when we were called in by the bosses of the University of East Anglia over Climategate, that position was long gone.

The reputation of the man at the centre of the scandal, Professor Phil Jones, the Climate Research Unit he ran, and the UEA that paid for and nurtured it, had all been expertly and publicly shot to pieces weeks earlier by whoever had leaked the selective and distorted stolen emails.

And the British media – particularly BBC News, but also broadsheet print press – loved it and were joyfully filling their boots daily with anything they could find from the most obscure bloggers and self-appointed experts.

We knew before we even got to Norwich that simply telling the truth wasn’t going to work – the shell-shocked UEA had been trying that from the start, but the likes of BBC Radio 4’s Today programme weren’t buying that while there was so much red meat laid on a plate for them by the climate-denier lobby.

So first and foremost, we needed to reset the narrative. We had three assets.

We quickly became confident that Phil Jones and the CRU were telling the truth – their science was honest. You only had to meet these bewildered and beaten-down people to realise they wouldn’t have had the malignancy, imagination or nous to carry out such a vast and appalling fraud.

Next, we had Jones himself. He was then so traumatised and frightened he literally couldn’t speak. But he was potentially a huge asset to deploy.

Finally, we had the bravery and backing of the two decent men running UEA: Edward Acton and his deputy Professor Trevor Davies, who defied ferocious attempts – internally as well as externally – to derail us.

Our next job was finding out not just what had happened, but how.

Frankly, I had no idea until then what a vicious and internecine place the world of climate science was.

The trap that CRU, and Professor Jones, had fallen into was to see the deniers, genuine sceptics and ordinary questioners as one and the same thing: irritating time-wasters they could simply ignore.

Big mistake. It made enemies they didn’t need, fuelled conspiracy theorists everywhere (“What have they got to hide?”) and painted a target on their own backs for the vested interests trying to block and delay the truth of man-made climate change being exposed.

Yet the science was true.

So that gave us a way forward. Mea Culpa. They would admit they behaved wrongly, even badly. Admit they broke legitimate FOI rules. Admit they obscured, were obstructive, or were downright unhelpful to the public who had a right to know.

But the science was true.

And Phil Jones could – and did – easily explain the truth of the distorted “hockeystick graph” and the mundane truth behind “the trick” email. We also knew the terrible ordeal Jones and his family were suffering, as the film revealed.

We could turn this from an assault on faceless academics and soulless data into a real, tragic, human story full of suffering and laced with unflinching – even embarrassing – honesty while hammering home repeatedly the core message: that the science was true.

It was a hard sell, to some. Very hard, to a few. But we had Acton and Davies’ brave, rock-steady backing, so it was agreed.

Jones needed coaching (we even hired a body language communications expert Hugo Simpson), rehearsing, constantly having to rebuild his confidence to get his voice back and his truth out.

Then we needed to choose the platforms to put him on.

First I rang one of Fleet Street’s best editors, John Witherow of The Sunday Times. He’d do us no favours, but I knew he would be scrupulously fair. He was.

Gritting our teeth, we knew we had to do BBC News, despite their relentless pursuit of the anti-CRU agenda. As expected, it was the most disappointing. To ensure our message went worldwide, we organised interviews with top US publications.

And it worked. The narrative changed. The truth came out, all the way to that House of Commons Select Committee.

The science was true. Its reputation – and that of Phil Jones, the CRU and UEA – was restored.

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