Eveline Lubbers on Tue, 29 Sep 1998 08:56:54 +0200 (MET DST)

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<nettime> Counterstrategies against online activism (The Shell case)

Counterstrategies against online activism
The Brent Spar Syndrome

By Eveline Lubbers

Shell is not going to forget lightly its misadventures with the Brent
Spar. The Oil Major was taken by complete surprise when the Greenpeace
campaign against sinking that former drill platform achieved its goals.
What happened to Shell can in fact happen to any corporation. Loosing
control of the situation as result of the activities of a pressure group
has become a nightmare scenario for the modern multinational enterprise.

Shell did too little too late

The Oil Major's first reactive measures have meanwhile become the perfect
example of how not to do it. But Shell has learned a lot as well. A
comprehensive review of what has become known as the PR disaster of the
century indicates that Shell had it all wrong about its own influence on
the media. There was a new factor in the game, which had been completely
missed out: the role of the Internet. That would not be allowed to happen
a second time. From July 1996 Shell International sports an Internet
manager. His name is Simon May, he is 29, and responsible for Shell
International=EDs various presences on the Internet, and for monitoring and
reacting to what is being written and said about Shell in cyberspace. He
also helps formulating Shell group=EDs strategy for how the Internet should
be used.

May's carreer began in journalism, and more recently he did a four-year
stint in the Sultanate of Oman in charge of the English- language
communications for the state-owned oil-company. With him Shell's got a
premium catch: May is young and eager, smart and fast, open-minded and
nice, everything the image of the Company ought to be.

And he understands like no other the Internet's potential - also what it
could mean for a company like Shell. Simon May openly admits that Shell
was beaten in the new-media war. The Brent Spar affair was one, but the
Nigeria situation also has prompted a 'masive on-line bombardment' of
criticism. To quote May: 'There has been a shift in the balance of power,
activists are no longer entirely dependent of the existing media. Shell
learned it the hard way with the Brent Spar, when a lot of information was
disseminated outside the regular channels.'

The Brent Spar affair has brought quite some change of attitude to Shell.
Ten years ago the Multinational could afford to blatantly ignore campaigns
against the South African Apartheid regime. Concern was brewing inhouse,
however, but Shell could maintain to the outside world that the campaigns
against Apartheid were not significantly damaging the Company. And for the
rest Shell kept haughtilly mum. Come the Brent Spar and car owners taking
en masse to boycotting Shell=EDs petrol pumps, and such an attitude no
longer pays of. Shell came to feel the might of the mass market, and bowed
down. An alternative would be worked out for the platform's fate.

But developments did not stop there. A few month later opposition leaders
were executed in Nigeria as result of their attacks on the environmental
disaster Shell was causing in Ogoni- land, and this caused a renewed storm
of protest against Shell. The intimate links between Shell and the
military regime came for severe criticism. The Oil Major then went for a
new tactic and opened a PR offensive. CEO Cor Herstroter took the
initiative in a debate on politically correct entrepreneurship. At the
shareholders meeting in 1996 the new chart of busines principles at Shell
was unveiled, a comprehensive code of conduct with due allowance for human

Does this all point out to a major shift in policies? Or are we witnessing
a smart public relation exercise intent on taking some steam from the
pressure groups' momentum?=20

In the beginning of June 1998, Brussels saw a conference devoted to
pressure groups' growing influence, organised by the PR agency Entente
International Communication. Entente did research about the way
corporations were interacting with pressure groups ground vice versa. The
outcomes, presented in a report titled 'Putting the Pressure on' are
harsh: 'Modern day pressure groups have become a major political force in
their own right, and are here to stay. They manifest themselves in the use
of powerfull communication techniques, and they succeed in attracting wide
attention and sympathy, projecting their case with great skill via the
mass media - they understand the power of PR and of the media
'sound-bite'. And now increasingly they do so over the global
telecommunication networks.=20

Their power and influence is bound to grow inexorably over the next years.=
Pressure groups are small, loosely structured and operate without overhead
or other bureaucratic limitations, they move lightly and creativly. They
pursue their aims with single- minded and remorseless dedication. To be on
the receiving end of a modern pressure group can be a very uncomfortable
experience indeed, sometimes even a very damaging one.=20

Multinational companies are ill prepared to face this challenge, their
responses are often slow and clumsy. There is a 'bunker' mentality, and a
reluctance to call in experienced help from outside which is surprising -
and potentially dangerous. This failure could cost such companies dearly
in the future.'

At the conference in the SAS Radison Hotel in Brussels, attended by some
70 participants from the corporate world and the PR industry, fear for the
unknown prevails. The unpredictable power of pressure groups, consumers,
or even normal citizens can take the shape of boycott campaigns, but also
of commuters on the (newly privatised) British Railways to move out from a
train that has been cancelled on short notice. The biggest question
remains unanswered: whose turn will be next? The Brent Spar affair has
left its mark here.=20

By way of illustration the story of Felix Rudolph, an Austrian national
who worked himself up from farm hand on his father=EDs estate to manager of
a factory producing genetically modified grain. Pioneer Saaten ('Pioneer
Grain', the company's name) was not aware of doing anything wrong. The
company produces for a small market niche in Central Europe and strives
for optimal quality, so as to enable farmers to obtain beter yields. All
products have been tested extensinvely, and all test results have been
duly registered. So nothing to worry about, that is till the company
became the focus of a protest campaign, triggered by an impending
referendum in Austria on genetically manipulated foodstuffs. =EBWe suddenly
had to engage in debate with the public, something we never had done
before. Who's interested in grains anyway?' Felix Rudolph, as he holds his
presentation at the Brussels conference, still looks dumbfounded about
what overcame him. 'Your products are unhealthy and dangerous asserted the
pressure groups, and we had no clue what we had to say in return. As soon
as you try to explain the extent of a risk, you admit that such a risk
exists. In that referendum, 90% of the people turned out to be against
gene technology, the majority of whom did not know what they were talking
about.' It is only later that Herr Rudolph understood that his company
merely served as an example for the pressure groups. 'By engaging in a
dialogue, we provided them with a platform to put forward their case.  The
discussion itself went nowhere.' This realisation came too late, however.
The campaign so much impressed the government that it enacted laws
regulating genetically manipulated foodstuffs. An embittered Herr Rudolph:
'Now the farmers may foot the bill, and the pressure groups have vanished
into thin air!'.  Pioneer Saaten had to temporarilly suspend the
production of modified grain. 'We will tray to explain things beter next
time we apply for a license.'

According to Peter Verhille from the Entente PR agency, the greatest
threat to the corporate world's reputation comes from the Internet, the
pressure groups newest weapon. 'A growing number of multinational
companies - such as McDonald's and Microsoft - have been viciously
attacked on the Internet by unidentifiable opponents which leave their
victims in desperate search for adequate counter measures.'

The danger emanating from the new telecommunication media cannot be
over-emphasized, says Mr Verhille. 'One of the major strength of pressure
groups - in fact the levelling factor in their confrontation with powerful
companies - is their ability to exploit the instruments of the
telecommunication revolution. Their agile use of global tools such as the
Internet reduces the advantage that corporate budgets once provided'. His
conclusions made a hard impact on the participants of the conference. In
fact most companies appear slow to incorporate such tools into their own
communication strategy. When asked what steps they planned to take to
match pressure groups mastery of these channels, most respondents simply
repeated their intention to expand into this area or admitted that their
preparations were still in a...preparatory stage.=20

As came to light in Brussels, there is one exception to this picture
however: Shell international. Internet manager Simon May gave a smashing
presentation, which showed very well what Shell had come to learn about
the new media. Simon May was also very open in an interview we hold with
him (as befits, by e-mail), even though he could understandably not answer
all our questions.=20

Pressure on the Internet, Threat or Opportunity was the core issue at his
presentation. Internet may be a threat to companies, it also offers big
opportunities. Simon May states that the fact that anyone can be a
publisher cheaply, can be seen, or at least searched and looked at
worldwide, and can present his/her viewpoints on homepages or in
discussion groups is not merely a menace, but also an unique challenge.
'Why are pressure groups so active on the Internet?  Because they can!'

Companies should do the same, he argues, but must do it professionaly.=20
'On-line activities must be an integral part an overall communication
strategy, and should not be simply left to the care of the computer

Basic tenet of the Shell Internet site (launched early 1996) was a new
strategy based on openness and honesty. Dialogue was the core concept, and
sensitive issues were not sidestepped. May is quite satisfied with the
results of this approach and illustrates this with some facts and

http://www.shell.com receives over 1100 e-mails a month, a full time
staffer answers all these mails personnally and within 48 hours, there is
no such thing as a standard reply. There are links to the sites of Shell's
competitors and detractors, and also to progressive social organisations
(nothing there more radical than Friends of the Earth or Greenpeace, but
this aside). Shell also allows opponents to air their views in forums -
those are uncensored. Not without pride, Simon May states that Shell is
still the only multinational to do this. There is no pre-determined
Internet strategy at Shell's, flexibility is the name of the game. 'It's
all about being able to to react, listen and learn'. His advice to the
Brussels conference-goers: 'Be careful, technology changes fast, and your
audience changes and develops even faster. And think before acting:=20
anything you=EDre putting up on an Internet site you make globally

Taking care of Shell's presence on the web is only one of the Internet
manager's tasks. He must also monitor and react to what is being written
and said about Shell. 'The on-line community should not be ignored' was
one of his advices in Brussels. 'Pressure groups were aware of the
potential of the Internet far earlier than the corporate world. There are
pressure groups that exist only on the Internet, they're difficult to
monitor and to control, you can't easilly enroll as member of these closed

Listening to the Internet community can be an effective barometer of
public opinion about your company. The Shell Headquarters in London are
making a thorough job of it. Specialised, external consultants have been
hired who scout the web daily, inventarising all possible ways Shell is
being mentioned on the Net, and in which context. Things are not made
easier by the fact that search engines will assign 48 different wellknown
uses of the word 'shell'...=20

Simon May gladly explains how the work is done. 'We use a service which
operates from the US, E:Watch, who scan the Web worldwide for references
to certain key words and phrases we supply to them. In the UK we use a
company called Infonic, who does the same thing from a European
perspective. The results they come up with can be completely different,
although they have been given the same search criteria, and the search has
been done at the same period of time. This can be for a number of reasons,
including the methods which they use to search, and the times of day they
enter a site to index it.'

Shell also uses so-called intelligent agents. These are search programs
that can be trained to improve their performance over time. Simon May:=20
'This is particularly useful for us since our company name has so many
different meanings. We can tell the 'agent' which results are useful and
which ones aren't, the next time the agent wil go out and come back with
only those documents which are relevant.'

This monitoring can not be for 100% truly effective, but has to be carried
out nonetheless, according to Simon May. 'You need to keep track of your
audience all the time, since you may learn a lot from it.'

Visiting the Shell web-site, http://www.shell.com, the first surprise is
the measure of openness about issues previously wrapped in taboo. There
are carefully written features on human rights, the environment, and even
the devastation and exploitation of Ogoni- land in Nigeria. The somewhat
defensive character of some stories gives an indication to which issues
are still sensitive. Speaking for instance of the massive oil spills in
Ogoni-land, for which Shell is held responsible ('totally exagerated and
unproven accusations'), there is always the mention that 80% of those have
been caused by sabotage by radical resistence groups (this percentage is
contested by the groups concerned).=20

At the site's discussion forums arranged by subject everybody is allowed a
say about Shell's practices. It is then ironic to see Shell collaborators
from Malaysia and Nigeria reacting with dismay about what they read in
those forums about their employer.=20

The question is of course whether this form of openness really yields
results. The forums are not intended for people to use to question Shell -
the e-mail facility is provided for that. 'The forums are intended for
people to debate issues relevant to Shell among themselves, so to speak',
says Simon May. The e-mail service is actually being used quite
intensively to put questions to Shell - these are the 1100 e-mails coming
in every month. What the nature is of these questions, and the answer to
these, remains between Shell and the e-mailers.=20

All in all, one might conclude that this amounts to a fake openness, for
show purposes only. True discussions in public are being eschewed, after
all. But Simon May would deny that the forums are mere window-dressing:=20
'We do believe quite firmly that people have the right to debate these
issues and we provide a place where they can do that in an environment
which might just lead to their view being heard in an organisation that
can make a difference.' Of course these forums function as barometer for
what certain people think, May admits, although this is not their primary

At Earth Alarm (the foreign affair project of the Dutch environmental
organisation Milieudefensie) these rather embellished representations of
reality do not cut much ice. 'They've changed a lot in their
communication, they're far more carefull about how they present themselves
to the outside world. But that is mostly addressed to their customers
here, in the Western world', says spokesperson Irene Bloemink. 'Profits
and principles, the first issue of the totally overhauled Shell
International Yearly Report has been only distributed in The Netherlands,
Great Britain and the United States. That's where the people are Shell
sees as a potential threat.'

The situation in Ogoni-land has not improved in the two-and-half years
since Ken Saro-Wiwa was hanged; on the contrary, things have only gone
worse, at least till the death of the military dictator General Sami
Abacha. 'Scores of people have been arrested in the beginning of this year
by a special military unit, founded specially to 'ensure Shell comes back
to Ogoni-land'. This would at least suggest some kind of involvement. Yet
Shell has done nothing to stop the latest wave of arrests.'

Adopting a code of conduct regarding human rights and the environment is
simply not enough. What counts is implementation and enforcement. Shell
has not in any way made clear how they intend to translate their good
intentions into concrete practice. There is no independent body to monitor
the implementation of the code of conduct. 'Shell is self- congratulating
about their first environmental Year Report, which they claim, has been
thoroughly reviewed by KPMG Management Consultants. Shell considers this a
fully independent review. But then, KPMG's environment CEO George
Molenkamp goes in de Volkskrant (Dutch daily) to say that 'accountants
don=EBt vouch as such for Shell's policies. Anything that comes in the
report is as Shell has decided.' Some contradictory viewpoints, I may
say', says Irene Bloemink.=20

It is doubtful whether Shell has really learned anything from its mistakes
in Nigeria. There is a new Shell venture in the Westafrican country Tshad
that looks as big as the Nigeria operation, and with the same possible
consequences. And everything seems to go wrong again. Shell joined in a
partnership with Esso and Elf (stakes are 40-40-20 respectively) and
intends to start drilling new oil fields in the unstable South of that
country. A report on the environment assesment came as an afterthought,
according to Earth Watch: the agreements were signed and test drillings
had already begun. The local population was appraised of what was in store
for them as the invading oilmen were underway, and the operators came to
the villages to bring the news accompanied by a heavyly armed military
escort. In March of this year, over a hundred civilians were killed by the
army as it tries to wrest control back of the area from the FARF
separatist movement, which in its turn highlights its existence by
attacking this oil project. The FARF claims that the earnings of the oil
production will exclusively benefit the presidential coterie in the North.=

Up to now, Shell has been hiding itself behind Esso as the local executive
partner responsible for external relations, and has declined to engage in
public debates on the subject. Even Simon May doesnt want to burn his
fingers on the Tshad issue. Not yet, that is.=20

(Translated by Patrice Riemens)

On counterstrategies against activism:


On online activism:


On monitoring Shell:


(This text has originally been written and translated for zkp5 and will
be published in the on-line magazine Telepolis. A dutch version
will appear, in 2 parts, in the magazine Intermediar)

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