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Tim Berry on business planning, starting and growing your business, and having a life in the meantime.

Whoops! New PR, New World

Oh dear. Those nasty activists. It looked at first like PR gone bad. me thinking it was dumb of Shell Oil to send a press release huffing and puffing about “activists” making fun of it. It looked like a press release. Curse you, activists! And like that. Shell is supposedly considering suing. The press release says:

“These people have gone to great lengths to mislead the public about the age and reliability of our Arctic vessels, and otherwise damage Shell’s credibility,” said Smith. “Shell can obviously not allow this sort of misinformation to proliferate, and we are taking the firmest legal measures against the perpetrators of this campaign.”

It talks about an evil social media campaign using the hashtag #shellfail and other supposed sins. It also links to the offending website, arcticready.com.

So I went to visit the website, which is serious spoof. How clever of these “activists,” I thought, and how dumb of Shell Oil. And a nice spoof, even a collection of funny ads and a make-an-add game going on too.

But there’s the rub. I went back to the press release to discover that the email with the supposed press release is also a spoof, by the same activists. So Shell’s not as dumb as this campaign makes it look. But, on the other hand, the campaign is smart, clever, and effective. Brave new world.

Here’s a picture of the email press release supposedly from Shell Oil:

I can’t work up any sympathy at all for an oil company drilling in the arctic. But also, wow, these are very effective tactics. No?

  • Antony

    I agree *BUT* one has to factor in issues of power into this – how much the oil companies have (alot) and how much the activists have (not so much). In a democracy people with a lot of power need to be held to a much higher standard of behaviour *BECAUSE* of the power they hold. Isn’t this one oft he principles in the division of powers in the US consistution?

    Not arguing that law breaking is good – but history has rather a strong track record of people fighting for improvements by breaking current laws (US revolution I believe was illegal under the law of the time!) albiet at considerable personal risk of sanction from the current legal system.

    Further, the oil companies recieve massive direct and indirect subsidies from tax payers the world-over – presumably most of whom care about their children and grandchildren. Is it ethical for the oil to use their power and tax payers money to short change these future generations by the choices they feel they have to make to maximize short term profits?

    I feel the oil company’s is the far larger ethical violation – and Shell’s reaction only goes to show how badly they don’t get this.

    There are lots and lots of examples now of large companies are collaborating with NGOs to figure out better approaches – just look at Forestry (FSC with Rain Forest Action Network and some of the large forrestry companies), Fishing (MSC, Unilvery), etc. For of the sorts of behviours that can help *ALL* stakeholders see Michael Conroy’s excellent book “Branded” – review here: http://www.slideshare.net/AntonyUpward/book-review-branded-aupward-v11b. Indeed I would say this activist group is following the playbook Conroy outlines – simply: attack brand value since it can make CEO’s pay attention.

    And of course there is the world by Nobel prize winning Economist Elinor Ostrom on how to manage common pool resources – i.e. so there is no “tragedy of the commons”.

    We are starting to understand how to work together – pitty the oil companies aren’t listening (or, worse, are choosing not to listen and learn). Wonder when their shareholders will realize their current behaviour is far more risky to returns than alternatives?

  • I agree it’s hard to be sympathetic with the oil companies and that the campaign is effective (and fun). But this also raises some interesting ethical issues.

    Is it ethical to violate Shell’s trademarks – especially given one of the goals of this campaign is likely to try and bait Shell into legal action to defend them? Another other interesting ethical issue is misleading people with the press release by making it look like it was from Shell.

    Also, while I didn’t try hard – I did try to find out what group is behind this and failed. Is it ethical to hide this information?

    Corporations are constantly (and generally rightly) attacked for not being open, honest and transparent.

    I think this campaign also fails these tests. That doesn’t make it unethical per se, but I do know if a major corporation used similar tactics they’d be widely slammed for it.

    • @Steve, thanks again for another insightful comment on this blog. I’m glad you posted this here because it’s a side of the issue worth considering. It makes me think my post itself is a bit too glib, too one sided. There are definitely two sides to this one, as you point out.

      Tim