Greta Thunberg has rapidly risen to international fame as a 16-year-old activist rallying global youth against the menace of climate change.
But before she had the attention of the world’s leaders and news editors, Thunberg relied on a public relations expert to help popularize her narrative.
Ingmar Rentzhog, the Swedish founder and CEO of We Don’t Have Time, a startup social network for climate activism, has said he is the one who “discovered” Thunberg. He first promoted her brand last August in a Facebook and Instagram post that went viral, racking up 14,000 likes and nearly 6,000 shares.
Rentzhog suggested in the post that “on the way to work” he had just happened to come across Thunberg on the first day of her now-famous school strike for the climate. He shared a photo of Thunberg sitting outside the Swedish parliament in Stockholm — a pink backpack positioned to her right and a handwritten protest sign to her left.
“There Greta sits 15 years old and striking alone against the entire world,” Rentzhog said. “No one but me talked to her.”
Rentzhog went on to urge others to join Thunberg’s protest.
“Make a heroic effort. Go by the parliament. Talk to Greta and show she’s not alone,” he said. “She needs your support now!”
Echoing a tweet posted to Thunberg’s account about an hour earlier, Rentzhog also quoted from the flyers she was carrying: “We kids usually don’t do what you tell us to do. We do as you do. And since you grown-ups don’t give a shit about my future, I won’t either.”
The following day, Rentzhog found time to post a short video about Thunberg’s strike.
The start of an global sensation
After the early boost from Rentzhog, Thunberg went on to inspire a national and then an international movement. Last Friday alone, millions of other schoolchildren in Sweden and around the world emulated her by skipping school to hold their own demonstrations demanding faster governmental action on climate change.
Meanwhile, Thunberg has become a global eco-icon and media darling. At Davos, the European Union, U.S. Congress and the United Nations, she has made headlines by facing world leaders, accusing them of jeopardizing her future by not fighting climate change hard enough.
“You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words,” she said at the U.N Climate Action Summit Monday. “And yet I’m one of the lucky ones. People are suffering. People are dying. Entire ecosystems are collapsing. We are in the beginning of a mass extinction. And all you can talk about is money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth. How dare you!”
On Tuesday, Thunberg was announced as a winner of the 2019 Right Livelihood Award, known as Sweden’s alternative Nobel Prize, along with a $103,00 cash purse. She is also the odds-on favorite to win the real Nobel next month.
Ingmar Rentzhog capitalizes on Greta Thunberg
Rentzhog founded We Don’t Have Time in 2017 with the stated aim of creating “the world’s largest social network for climate action.” Both he and the company have claimed some credit for Thunberg’s fame.
Days after the first social media posts about her climate strike, We Don’t Have Time published a Medium essay boasting about its involvement.
“We Don’t Have Time reported on Greta’s strike on its first day and in less than 24 hours our Facebook posts and tweets received over 20,000 likes, shares and comments,” the blog post read. “It didn’t take long for national media to catch on. As of the first week of the strike, at least six major daily newspapers, as well as Swedish and Danish national TV, have interviewed Greta. Two Swedish party leaders have stopped by to talk to her as well.”
In November, We Don’t Have Time referenced Thunberg 11 times in promotional materials for a share issue, as first reported in February by Swedish newspaper Svenska Dagbladet. The prospectus promised investors the company could be “extremely profitable” by creating viral content and running digital advertisements from companies that want to be associated with the climate activism.
“Leading representatives from We Don’t Have Time were the first to pay attention to Greta Thunberg’s protest through Facebook and Twitter posts as well as Youtube films that received viral spread,”the document read. “The company thus played a central role in giving Greta Thunberg’s protest great national and international attention.”
It worked: The company raised over a $1 million in funding.
However, after the Svenska Dagbladet investigation came out, We Don’t Have Time and Rentzhog faced accusations that he was exploiting Thunberg. The company was forced to apologize for using her to fundraise without her knowledge. Thunberg subsequently stepped down from its Youth Advisory Board, which she had joined in October at Rentzhog’s invitation, and she swore off commercial interests.
Critics, though, have alleged that Thunberg’s parents are part of the problem, along with journalists, activists and green companies said to be manipulating her.
The media is using Greta Thunberg as a political pawn to push their radical climate agenda which is *not* about the environment, it's about destroying capitalism and implementing socialism@realDonaldTrump is correct to mock this idiotic message & he did so in a hilarious manner https://t.co/hLmm6xSL1F
— Ryan Saavedra (@RealSaavedra) September 24, 2019
Swedish reporter Andreas Henriksson, who covers PR, said in a December Facebook post that Rentzhog helped organize the climate strike to hype a 2018 family memoir by Thunberg’s parents. Henriksson also said that Rentzhog likely knew Thunberg before the strike, having attended the same climate conference as her in May.
However, Rentzhog has denied the allegations. In a comment on Henriksson’s post, he said it was “no secret” he had done PR for Thunberg, but he had not helped organize the climate strike. He said he was tipped off about the protest and never anticipated it would “consist of a single 15-year-old girl.”
In February, Rentzhog told The Local, an English-language Swedish news outlet, that he is motivated by the climate, not by profit, though he acknowledged his company had raised another $1 million in early 2019.
“We want to build a platform with modern technology. This is not free, a lot of money is needed,” he said. “We have so far received just over SEK 20 million ($2 million) from 500 investors through two new issues, of which 10 million was from the last one in December.”
For her part, Thunberg has insisted her climate activism is guided by her conscience, and that her parents have only reluctantly been converted to the cause.
“Many people love to spread rumors saying that I have people ‘behind me’ or that I’m being ‘paid’ or ‘used’ to do what I’m doing,” she wrote on Facebook in February. “But there is no one ‘behind’ me except for myself.”
She also took credit for coming up with the climate strike, saying she had never met Rentzhog before he approached her outside the parliament.
Despite his professional falling out with Thunberg, Rentzhog has continued to mention her frequently on social media. On Aug. 20, the anniversary of her first climate strike, he shared a Facebook “memory” of the first day they met.
Neither Thunberg or Rentzhog immediately responded to Pluralist’s request for comment.