N5M Conference, March 1999
I am going to talk about the current tactics that companies are using
counter environmental and public interest activists, as well as the
media and the public at large.
On the whole the techniques the companies have used for the last few
years have been very simple: On the one hand they have co-opted the
environmental debate, by changing their language, and by greenwashing
their products. On the other hand they have demonised and marginalised
activists by labelling them as extremists, as violent and as terrorists.
The result of activists being demonised is something that Sheila
O'Donnell will talk about in a moment.
I am going to concentrate on is the increasing co-option of the
environmental debate by industry and the use of dialogue as a PR tactic
that companies are using against activists. For examples, I will mainly
focus on the oil company, Royal Dutch/ Shell.
Dialogue is a part of a greater drive for transparency that has occurred
amongst the largest corporations in recent years. What we have to try
and work out is whether these companies are genuine in their attempts to
be open, or whether it really is some cynical PR plot.
There is no doubt that links with environmental or development groups
help industry establish or improve their 'green credentials' and it
helps the company gloss over its polluting practices. For example, in
the USA, the joint project between Environmental Defense Fund and
McDonalds has been repeatedly praised throughout the industry. In the
UK, McDonalds sued two unemployed activists, who questioned the
company's health, and environmental record, in the now infamous
One prominent anti-environmental PR guru E. Bruce Harrison advises that
"choosing green partners is without doubt the best strategy to improve
your standing". Harrison cut his spurs working for the chemical industry
against Rachel Carson's infamous book Silent Spring.
We must understand that for business, both transparency and establishing
links with environmental, human rights, development and Indigenous
groups and having dialogue with the opposition are simple PR techniques.
Dialogue is the most important PR tactic that companies are using to
overcome objections to their operations.: "To get on the green" as E
Bruce Harrison calls it, "be the model of openness. Initiate dialogue".
It is a typical divide and rule tactic. One PR guru has outlined a three
step divide and conquer strategy on how corporations can defeat public
interest activists who apparently fall into four distinct categories:
"radicals", "opportunists", "idealists" and "realists". The goal is to
isolate the radicals, "cultivate" the idealists and "educate" them into
becoming realists, then co-opt the realists into agreeing with industry'
Another PR executive divides activists into five personalities:
Advocates who argue for what they believe in
Dissidents who are against things because of their character
Activists who want to get something done or changed
Zealots who are overridingly single-minded
Fanatics who are "zealots with their stabilisers removed"
The reasonable activists can be dealt with by dialogue, the zealots
fanatics you can only be overcome by undermining their support through
marginalisation. And one way to marginalise people is through dialogue.
Take Shell, for example: This month the company kicks off a twenty
million pound corporate PR campaign in a bid to restore its tarnished
image, dented by the Brent Spar fiasco and its collusion with the
military regime in Nigeria. The PR campaign will focus on environmental
and social issues. The two key issues are encouraging dialogue and
debate with the public and use of the internet.
The PR campaign is being managed by J Walter Thompson and Fishburn
Hedges, who are working closely with the new media agency Traffic
Interactive, which is co-ordinating their internet campaign.
On the net, Shell has set up a new discussion
forum will go live
tomorrow on the 15 March. The site will encourage online debate on
topical environmental issues, such as renewable energy. Banner adverts
will be placed over the internet inviting you to join the debate.
This PR offensive is an extension of a policy that the company launched
in 1996, the year after Brent Spar and Ken Saro-Wiwa's murder in
Nigeria. In essence the internet has become the cutting edge medium for
greenwashing. Shell already has dialogue forums about topical discussion
areas. If you look at Shell's web-site, you can already discuss
environmental, petrochemical, employee, social, and technical issues in
one of the company's Forums.
You can also express your opinion in the Shell Ballot Box responding
questions such as "Do you think Shell is an effective communicator" or
"Should businesses use their influence with governments to address
broader issues of human rights."
On the Net you can read about Shell's values, where the company says
that "Having unshakeable moral values and sound business principles means
we take pride in what we do. Since our earliest days, we have been
guided by a passionate commitment to honesty, integrity and respect for
people". You should ask the Ogoni in Nigeria about Shell's honesty and
integrity; where 2000 people died and 30,000 were made homeless.
But there is more on the net from Shell. "This section is about
dialogue. We want you to know more about how we work and how we strive
to live up to our principles" and in return Shell "Promise to listen".
But do they listen and if they do listen, do they change their
operations? We know the site receives over 1,100 emails a month, and a
full-time staff member answers all these mails personally and within
forty-eight hours. But the real question to ask is has Shell changed?
Have their operations changed, or is it just the PR.
I argue that any changes you see in their operations are just
that there is no such thing as environmentally and culturally sound oil
and gas development, it is pure greenwashing, part of a systematic
attempt to spread a green veneer around their polluting practices.
Dialogue is being used to maintain a business as usual future for Shell
and other TNCS.
What we are witnessing is that the net gives companies like Shell the
chance to have a much softer interactive interface with consumers and
critics that was previously not possible through the traditional annual
However, Shell reiterates this compassionate theme in its ground-
breaking booklet "Profits and Principles: Does there have to be a
Choice" which takes corporate PR into a new phase as well. "We care what
you think about us, it says in hand-writing on the inside cover, whilst
also mentioning dialogue.
You do not have to look far to see the hypocrisy of Shell's position.
Profits and Principles, Shell says about climate change that "prudent
precautionary measures are called for" and that "the world needs to take
action now". However last year Shell also spent $7.5 billion on
exploration and production of new oil and gas. This is hardly a
The company has adopted the dialogue approach elsewhere. Over the last
eighteen months, it pioneered a sophisticated "stakeholder" process,
which it hopes will become a blue-print for industry to use elsewhere.
Having learnt from its operations in Nigeria and the Brent Spar fiasco,
the company tried a different tract in Peru, where it has been exploring
for oil in some of the most culturally and ecologically sensitive
rainforest left on the globe.
In an unprecedented move, Shell held a series of workshops in Lima,
Washington and London in December 1997 and June 1998 to which some 90
interested groups or "stakeholders" in its Peruvian Camisea project were
invited. Not up for discussion was whether the project should go ahead,
but how it should go ahead. Meanwhile, the whole process divided
different groups on whether to take part in the Shell- initiative before
Shell decided not to proceed with development on economic grounds. All
the more radical groups were marginalised from the process.
In the UK we now have forums set up between environmentalists and
biotech, oil, mining and nuclear industries. Its all part of growing
stakeholder consultation. Its dialogue with the moderates,
marginalisation of the radicals.
This whole process of stakeholder consultation is the start of a
systematic attempt by TNCs to redefine themselves as corporations
operating for the common good, not for profit, whilst dividing the
We have to understand that companies will do almost anything to defend
the bottom line, one of profit maximisation. Truth is often the first
casualty in the corporate war against activists. As more and more
companies want to sit down and negotiate with NGOS, we have to understand
why they are doing it. We have to be clear in what we want and what our
vision is for the future. Do we envisage these companies being part of a
really sustainable future, or do we ask ourselves can these companies
ever be sustainable?
Take the oil industry - Critics of the industry argue what is the point
is negotiation with an industry that continues to ruthlessly search for
more oil and gas, at a time when we need to be rapidly reducing our
fossil fuel dependence because of climate change. Recent indications are
that we face a climate catastrophe in the next fifty years.. However,
not only is oil development incompatible with climate stability, its
also incompatible with economic stability.
There is a myth about oil development in that it actually benefits the
host country. Petroleum led development strategies have delivered nation
after nation into a spiral of debt and dependency. Recent ground-
breaking research emanating from Ecuador shows that the country is
actually worse off now than before its oil was exploited. Its oil
reserves have allowed the country to borrow heavily from international
money sources, but little of this money has actually benefited the
public. 80 per cent of oil revenue now goes to service the debt and
nothing else. The country has a greater number of people who live in
poverty, and a greater gap between rich and poor. Not only has Ecuador
got a higher national debt, but it also a huge ecological debt, with
millions of hectares of rainforest and thousands of Indigenous people
adversely affected by oil development.
All in all, from an ecological, cultural and economic perspective we
should be disinvesting out of oil and gas now. But oil companies cannot
disinvest because they have to find more oil and gas to maximise a
return to their shareholders. If Shell explores for more oil and gas,
this makes a good return for their shareholders, but not for everyone
else because of climate change.
What they are largely doing, critics argue, is working against
public interest. We have to ask ourselves can companies like Shell, BP,
Exxon, Monsanto, or Novartis ever be sustainable. If we believe they
cannot, I would say what is the point in wasting precious time, energy
and resources talking to them?
So what should we do.
I believe that we should not dialogue with companies, nor be fooled
the tactics on the internet.
I believe public interest groups should not take money off companies.
I believe we have to ask ourselves very searching questions about some
of these companies and be truthful when we say it doesn't matter what
shade of green you paint yourself in, you don't exist in our future.