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The Internet humiliation of Royal Dutch Shell Plc

Wall Street Journal Image John Donovan

The Internet humiliation of Royal Dutch Shell Plc

Originally published on 22 October 2007

By John Donovan

How would you feel if an “in your face” 24/7 global arch critic of your business was legally intercepting some of your private email, including job applications, business proposals and other highly sensitive and confidential communications all meant for your company and worse still, was communicating with the senders of the email? This is the highly embarrassing and truly bizarre predicament in which the multinational oil giant Shell currently finds itself.

Unbelievable as this may seem, it happens to be true, as the Company Secretary and General Counsel Corporate of Royal Dutch Shell Plc, Mr Michiel Brandjes would reluctantly have to confirm. All such communications are passed on personally to him by John Donovan (the author of this article), a Shell shareholder and long term critic of Shell senior management. He is also the co-owner of the website www.royaldutchshellplc.com which happens to be the precise dotcom domain name for Royal Dutch Shell Plc.

According to an FT report on 19 October 2007, Royal Dutch Shell Plc has a market capitalisation of $273bn. The multinational is active in more than 130 countries and territories, with over 40,000 petrol stations and 47 Oil refineries and employs over 108,000 people worldwide. Shell has a significant presence on the Internet operating more than 200 websites spanning 80 countries in 25 languages.

Yet if you run an MSN Live search for “Royal Dutch Shell Plc” the first two websites listed on the first page of 629,000 results (results on 22 October 2007) are for what Reuters recently described as the “unofficial” company website: www.royaldutchshellplc.com. The same search carried out on the same day on Google found the unofficial site listed at number 3 on the first page of results and on Yahoo, also at number 3.

Fortune Magazine has recommended two websites for information about Shell, the Shell portal site www.shell.com and royaldutchshellplc.com which attracts vastly more traffic than any Shell website. It receives up to 4.6 million hits per month. It achieves this domination by providing a free news service focussed on Shell which publishes all news stories about Shell, positive or negative, mixed in with candid articles authored by Shell insiders or the owners of the website. There is also a popular interactive “Live Chat” feature on which Shell insiders exchange information or post revelations. Leaked Shell internal documents and communications are also published on a regular basis. Over 17,000 articles and documents are freely available for online research purposes. The site is entirely non-commercial – there are no charges of any kind. Because there are so many royaldutchshellplc.com articles on the Internet, anyone searching for information about Shell inevitably quickly stumbles across the website.

On 22 September 2007, The Times newspaper reported on the “war” between Shell and the owners of the website, 91 year old Alfred Donovan and his 61 year old son, John. There have been six High Court battles over the years. Currently eight Royal Dutch Shell companies are collectively suing a Shell whistleblower, Dr John Huong, for alleged defamation in articles published on the Donovan website. The Shell litigation includes multiple injunctions relating to articles on the site and a contempt action demanding the imprisonment of Dr Huong. There are no current proceedings directly against royaldutchshellplc.com or its owners.

In 2005, Shell unsuccessfully attempted in proceedings brought via the World Intellectual Property Organisation to seize the royaldutchshellplc.com domain name. The battle attracted worldwide publicity including a major article in The Wall Street Journal. An application to Shell under the UK Data Protection Act forced Shell to handover internal documents relating to the Donavan’s and their website. The documents revealed that Shell had set up a team with gung-ho battle plans to try to counter the impact of the website. Thus far their efforts have been a dismal failure. Shell recently admitted that it was also behind an unsuccessful attempt to close down the site which is a continuing source of humiliation for Shell and even worse, has had a profound financial impact on the company and on its reputation.

There is more publicity about the unofficial website than any of the Shell owned sites. All of the featured quotes below come from articles published in 2007.

Prospect magazine said “The Donovan website has become an open wound for Shell” but “Essential reading for anyone who covers Shell”.

The Financial Times described it as “an anti-Shell website… that has been a long-running thorn in the companies side”

The Daily Mail said Shell has been “rattled” and put on the “back foot” by the site.

The Donovan’s were recently described by The Sunday Telegraph in a whole page article as “Online Revolutionaries”.

The One World Trust, an independent research organisation associated with the UK legislature and the United Nations, said in a recent newsletter: “As The Royal Dutch Shell plc website shows, a gripe site can have a profound impact on global organisations”. The newsletter went on to say: “The site has played a watchdog function on the activities of Shell, and has acted as a central point for the gathering of complaints….”  “The site has not only cost Shell billions of dollars in Russia… “even Shell insiders unhappy with the company use it”.

Despite the fact that the site prominently displays notices making it clear that it is not affiliated with Royal Dutch Shell, it still receives job applications (some with CV’s), business proposals, general enquiries and even terrorist threats, all meant for Shell (and passed on to Michiel Brandjes). Several such emails were sent to Mr Brandjes today.

The website serves as the unofficial heart and conscience of Shell, with conversation and debate on the Live Chat facility involving current and former Shell employees and other parties with an interest in Shell, including Shell shareholders. It allows retired Shell employees to feel that they are retaining a connection with Shell. The site benefits from their immense experience and wisdom. One example is Mr Paddy Briggs, a former Shell executive of 37 years standing.  Another is Mr Bill Campbell, the equally highly respected former Group Auditor of Shell International Limited who is leading an employee safety campaign targeting Shell following the Brent Bravo Scandal in which Shell employees lost their lives in an avoidable accident.

Shell’s own internet discussion forum “TellShell” was “suspended” in November 2005 because it attracted a great deal of negative contributions relating for example to the Shell reserves fraud in 2004, the Corrib pipeline debacle and events in Nigeria, where Shell has a horrendous track record, including a commercial relationship with the leadership of militants attacking Shell installations. “TellShell” has recently been replaced with “Shell Dialogues”, a big step backwards as it has no live interactive dimension.

Royaldutchshellplc.com has been used to publish appeals on behalf of a number of parties who wanted to reach Shell shareholders or Shell employees. These include appeals by the WWF, The World Ecumenical Council for Corporate Responsibility, U.S. PIRC, Ogoni activist organisations, Friends of the Earth and by Bernstein Liebhard & Lifshitz, the New York attorneys acting for the lead plaintiff in the remaining class action lawsuit arising from the Shell reserves fraud. Shell has already set aside $500 million towards settling the claim. Bernstein has acknowledged that they received information from Shell insiders responding to the appeal made on the Donovan website. More recently, following a further appeal on the website within a U.S. federal court imposed deadline, a Shell shareholder was found to represent all non-American Shell shareholders in an expanded global class action. The site has therefore played a significant role in the litigation.

Many articles in the news media have resulted from information passed to the website by Shell insiders. For example, on 6 June 2007, the Financial Times published a front page article under the headline: “Pipeliners All! Shell’s memo to Sakhalin”. The article was about a leaked motivational memo in the form of an email from David Greer, the Deputy Chief Executive of Sakhalin Energy; a Shell Managing Director on secondment to the Sakhalin-2 project. The article said “The memo was leaked to the website www.royaldutchshellplc.com, which has long been a thorn in Shell’s side. Shell confirmed the e-mail was genuine but was reluctant to discuss it further”. The FT also conducted a separate online poll asking the question: “Is this the worst motivational memo ever?” One passage in the motivational memo was so striking that Time Magazine published it in their “Quotes of the Day” feature on 6 June 2007: “So Lead me, Follow me or Get out of my way; Success is how we bounce when we are on the bottom”.

A keen eyed FT reader noticed that inspirational passages were borrowed from a famous speech given by the legendary U.S. General George S Patton, on 5 June 1944 on the eve of D-Day the Sixth of June. On 7 June 2007, a follow-up piece was published in the Financial Times newspaper and on the FT.com website, under the headline: “Sakhalin motivational memo borrows heavily from Patton”. On 9 June 2007, The Moscow Times published a front page article under the heading: Sakhalin Pep Talk From ‘Old Blood and Guts’ The article said: “Greer’s memo, which was leaked to an anti-Shell web site, Royaldutchshellplc.com, appears to show the pressure that he and his fellow managers have been under, as it talks of “the risk of becoming a team that doesn’t want to fight and lacks confidence in its own ability.” On 22 June 2007, The Moscow Times published a front page story with the headline: “Sakhalin Energy’s Greer Steps Down”. His abrupt departure came after 27 years with Shell.

SHELL STRIPPED OF OWNERSHIP OF SAKHALIN ENERGY

In November 2006, Oleg Mitvol, the Deputy Head of Rosprirodnadzor, the Russian Environmental Agency, confirmed in a published interview that the evidence, on which a prosecution against Sakhalin Energy claiming $10 billion in damages was being mounted, was supplied by John Donovan of royaldutchshellplc.com. Mr Mitvol was quoted as saying: “Who will take Sakhalin Energy to court? I will take them. I have documents proving that the Sakhalin Energy management was aware that the company violated technical standards, but carried on trying to meet project deadlines and refused to stop work. I am confident of winning my case in Stockholm. What documents are these? Where are they from? I have email correspondence between executives in Sakhalin Energy management from 2002. I received these letters from John Donovan, owner of the anti-Shell website www.royaldutchshellplc.com.” The Russian energy company Gazprom controlled by the Russian government subsequently obtained a majority holding in the Sakhalin-II project. Shell has admitted in a financial statement that the loss of its majority stake in the project has led to a cut in hydrocarbon reserves of 400,000 barrels. At $90 a barrel, that amounts to $36 billion. Hence the analysis by the One World Trust that the website has cost Shell “billions”.

Its impact is still gathering momentum, gaining more insider sources and internal documents detrimental to the reputation and value of Shell.  The recent history of one humiliation after another for Shell management under constant bombardment from the most damaging gripe website since the advent of the Internet looks set to continue. The fact that it uses the domain name of the company under assault adds to the embarrassment of an incompetent management unable to stop the damage. 

Shell management had the opportunity to obtain the dotcom domain name for Royal Dutch Shell Plc before the name of the unified company was revealed, but failed to do so. Such gross negligence has for all of the reasons set out above, cost Shell dearly.

Links to all quoted articles can be found on the Wikipedia article:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Royaldutchshellplc.com

Related follow-up article…

Intercepting job applications and business proposals meant for Shell

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