McKinsey Spins As The World Burns

I promised myself at the start of this year that I’d forego writing about the ethics and mechanics of communications, but today’s newspaper forced me to make an exception: After getting accused of coddling the world’s worst polluters in a widely-shared news article earlier this week, McKinsey & Co. ran an unapologetic defense as a full page ad in the Financial Times (here’s the text on their website).

The company has the right to make its case and deserves credibility points for standing by what they do, but all of the points get erased by the spin of the author’s arguments which I’ll address in specific references below:

“Why do we serve high-emission companies? Because that is where the emissions are.”

The ad’s headline is deceptive because it poses McKinsey’s engagement with such companies as focused on their emissions (later on, the copy will reference many “climate transitions” in another fudge) which of course isn’t true, since the scope of their projects ranges far and wide. The subhead repeats that positioning along with the requisite reference to the upcoming COP26 conference and then the first paragraph does so again (while noting a partial list of industries it serves).

“And no, there is no contradiction between working in these sectors and our commitment to the transition.”

Repetition is a proven tool for producing memory retention and it’s clear that McKinsey’s main point is that it’s not guilty of doing anything wrong because it’s not guilty of doing anything wrong. The reference to “our commitment to the transition” is a notable add at this point, considering the reader has no idea what it is. A quick visit to the company’s website doesn’t add any clarity though the repetitive headline features front and center on the home page.

“Hard-to-abate sectors represent 81 percent of the global economy’s carbon footprint. Like it or not, there is no way to deliver emissions reductions without working with these industries to rapidly transition.”

Sure there is, starting with replacing them with technologies and solutions that don’t set the planet on fire.

“At the same time, the world economy needs to keep going and growing, and fossil fuels (more than 80% of primary energy demand) and non-electric cars (99% of the global fleet) are what moves it today.”

This long paragraph sets out the full employment argument for McKinsey’s consultants: meeting emissions reduction targets is a woefully huge, complex challenge that touches everyone everywhere and McKinsey is in the thick of it making sure its clients keep making money. There’s no crime whatsoever in such a value prop — it’s actually a smart offer — but it’s simply not true, or rather it ignores aforementioned woefully huge, complex challenge. “Transition” is happyspeak for clients who’re scared of the blunt and shocking changes they will either implement of suffer.

“We…have completed some 600 engagements in the past two years alone focused on helping our clients with climate transitions.”

The original reference to “transitions” to low or no-emissions is now a more vague “climate transitions,” which could reference a wide variety of consulting gigs since so much of what’s going on these days is brought into focus by a lens of impacting climate or it’s influences on business. The graph goes on to list four examples of that work, none of which cite climate impact as the sole or priority nature of the engagement; even the most overt reference, to “helping a chemical company reach net zero” could reference a project analyzing staff pay that happened down the hallway from the folks trading carbon offsets. Other projects to track emissions, price climate risk, and create “end-to-end EV solutions” (whatever that means) assert no responsibility for delivering emission reduction goals. They’re simply along for the ride.

“These aren’t easy problems. But no one said this would be easy.”

So true. Nobody said it, and an idea introduced with the sole purpose of using it as foil for the point you want to make is called a “straw man.”

“We are also walking our talk: McKinsey is well on the way to being net zero in our own operations by 2030.”

Actually, it’s exhibiting the leadership over its own businesses that it fails to provide to its high-emitter clients. It helps that it doesn’t manufacture anything except PowerPoint presentations and copy for newspaper ads, but still, this point seems legit and deserves to be recognized.

“To us, the practical case then is straightforward: cutting emissions means cutting emissions. Abandoning the hard-to-abate sectors does not advance the cause.”

OK, back to the unmitigated spin. Up to this point, McKinsey has purposefully used the mushy term “climate transition” to describe the journeys of its clients. It has taken no responsibility for overtly helping them cut emissions, and its engagements only indirectly “focus” on this cause. So, how again are they advancing it?

“McKinsey won’t always get this right, and we recognize that we are also a work-in-progress ourselves.”

The longest graph in the essay is an extended riff on the huge, complex challenge noted earlier and a commercial for why clients should hire them (the “I may be a caveman, but…” intro is standard sales technique). Halfway through it repeats the fiction of “…an orderly, just, and inclusive transition,” as if in conscious denial of the UN’s recent announcement that the world is “on track for climate catastrophe.” Good client marketing isn’t necessarily good policy.

“Our goal is ambitious and clear: to be the world’s largest force for decarbonization in the private sector.”

Really? That sounds like a truly big deal, so why is that declaration of corporate purpose a single sentence at the end of a long letter? How is that ambition translated into operational policies, like what clients it will take on or on what projects it will focus? Where are the metrics for the impact for being “the world’s largest force?” Check McKinsey’s About Us page on its website for the answers: There are none.

“Companies can’t go from brown to green without getting a little dirty. And if that means some mud gets thrown at McKinsey, we can live with that.”

The closing statements to the letter are too cute for their own good. McKinsey isn’t helping companies go from brown to green but rather to some muddled color in-between, and I thought the whole point of transition was to move from more to less dirt. Characterizing the complaints about the company’s work for carbon emitters as mudslinging is an insult to people who have legitimate questions about the nature and pace of McKinsey’s engagements.

Maybe the problem with this ad starts with its headline, which echoes the line attributed to bank robber John Dillinger (when asked why he robs banks, he replied because “that is where the money is”). Maybe positioning McKinsey’s work with big carbon emitters as theft revealed more than the letter hoped to communicate?

By Jonathan Salem Baskin

I'm a writer, musician, and science junkie.

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