The Inconvenient Truth About Al Gore's Public Relations Problem

Former Vice President Al Gore is facing an image problem, and it's leaving the environmental movement short a spokesman.
Former Vice President Al Gore is facing an image problem, and it's leaving the environmental movement short a spokesman.

Since leaving office, former U.S. Vice President Al Gore has transformed himself from a politician to a secular saint in the crusade against global warming. Just three years ago, he won a Nobel Peace Prize for raising awareness of climate change around the world, and his documentary about global warming, An Inconvenient Truth, won an Academy Award. But his status as an environmental leader may be faltering.

Gore's reputation has been tarnished by the recent separation from Tipper, his wife of 40 years, as well as by lurid accusations -- published in The National Enquirer -- that he groped a masseuse and two other women. While Gore denies wrongdoing, his public-relations problems are depriving environmentalists of one of their most eloquent spokesmen just when they may need him the most.

A Gallup Poll earlier this year found that 48% of Americans believe the seriousness of global warming is exaggerated, up from 41% in 2009 and 31% in 1997, when Gallup first asked the question. And even though the Environmental Defense Fund argues that "2010 is on pace to become the warmest year on record, following the warmest decade on record," 35% of Americans say the effects of global warming either will not happen in their lifetimes or will never happen, according to the poll. Little wonder that an effort to enact a broad climate bill recently flopped in the Congress.

Stuck on the Sidelines

Of course, the skepticism about climate change isn't entirely Gore's fault. Americans are cynical about anything that politicians in Washington have to say. But Gore can't do much to help the situation, either, because he presents too tempting of a target for critics who have given him the nickname "The Goreicle." Some environmentalists say they're glad that Gore is stuck on the sidelines because he's such a lightening rod for criticism.

Aside from the criticism he's drawn for his recent problems, Gore also has faced criticism about his wealth. He's gotten quite wealthy thanks to investments in Google (GOOG), his service on the Apple (AAPL) board of directors, his work at private-equity firm Kleiner Perkens and his six-figure speaking fees. He's also heard it about his electricity usage. Gore was cleared of sexual assault charges because the alleged victim, in the words of ABC News, "failed a polygraph test, thanked the hotel management two days after the alleged incident for sending business her." She also refused to provide medical records relevant to the case and sold her story to the Enquirer.

"I certainly don't revel in someone else's travails," says James Taylor, a senior fellow at the libertarian Heartland Institute, who disagrees with Gore on climate change, in an interview. "[This scandal] has taken a little of the veneer off the illusion of his moral superiority."

Communications Specialist: Gore Should Speak

Gore, whose office couldn't be reached for comment, will have to tell his side of the story to explain to the public why his private actions don't square with his public persona, says Michael Robinson, senior vice president of Levick Strategic Communications and an expert on crisis communications. That won't be easy given Gore's reputation for hubris. His lawyers are also probably advising him to keep his mouth shut.

"Those who live in eco-friendly glass houses should not throw rocks," Robinson says. "He is forever changed or tainted by this. It needs to be addressed."

Which media outlet should Gore speak with? He probably should avoid the harder news shows such as 60 Minutes and opt for a more sympathetic audience from a talk show such as Oprah, Robinson says.

Regardless of any of Gore's personal faults, environmentalists would probably be better off with him fighting on their side. But Gore won't be joining the fray any time soon. Still, his personal problems will fade -- eventually -- from the headlines. And the problem of global warming will still be there when it does.