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Sorry Jeroen it just won’t do…

A friend who knew that I have been a rather vocal critic of Shell’s corporate advertising over the past few years asked me if I felt vindicated by the admissions in George Monbiot’ s recent interview with Jeroen van der Veer: Of course for Jeroen to admit:

“If we are very big in oil and gas and we are so far relatively small in alternative energies, if you then every day only make adverts about your alternative energies and not about 90% of your other activities I don’t think that – then I say transparency, honesty to the market”

is a big step forward. The disingenuousness of Shell’s advertising over the years, which has concentrated on the minuscule and unimportant Renewables sector and excluded much mention at all of Shell’s core oil business, was one of my main complaints. But, as Monbiot points out in the article which accompanied the van der Veer interview, Shell continues to mislead in its advertising. The position that the company tries to establish is that it has something unique to offer the energy world and, further, that this something is primarily driven by some sort of altruistic motives. The whole campaign over the years has been and continues to be utterly misleading – as I argued here and here:and here:

It may be an old fashioned concept but when you communicate with stakeholders the first thing that you must do is tell the truth. This not only means that you must make statements that are verifiable but also that you should answer legitimate questions.

Hats off to Jeroen for agreeing to be interviewed by George Monbiot who is arguably the most vocal journalist and writer around on the subject of climate change and whose criticism of the oil industry over the years has been determined and always well researched. But sadly in the interview Jeroen at times looked like a bumbling fool (which he is not) and at other times like a corporate cover-up king – which he certainly is.

Monbiot asked Jeroen pointedly to tell him what the quantum is of Shell’s investment in Renewables. It is a reasonable question – not least because Shell has spent plenty of advertising bucks over the years assuring us that it is committed to alternative energy. But van der Veer absolutely refused to tell Monbiot what the figure is. If you go to Shell’s most recent Annual report you won’t find the answer either. If you do a word search on this huge document for the word Renewables you draw a blank – Shell which so recently trumpeted its commitment to Renewables doesn’t even use the term any more. And if you try and find how much the bits and pieces of wind, solar and the rest are worth you won’t be able to find that either. It’s all hidden away. And, as George Monbiot found out, Jeroen won’t tell you either!

As a long-time Shell employee and now a Shell Pensioner I have always been and remain a Shell loyalist. This may be hard for some to believe in that I have been vociferous in my criticisms over the years. But if you look at my extensive report on the Corrib Gas project, which is now available free as a download here, you will see that I continue to have a high regard for Shell people at the operational level and in the main what they do and how they do it. What I cannot tolerate, perhaps because I spent so much of my later Shell years working in Marketing and Corporate Communications, is when Shell lies about what it does – especially when the directive to peddle these lies comes straight from the top.

Shell is in a vulnerable state at the moment. A huge cost cutting exercise is in the pipeline which will probably radically change the structure and imperatives of the organisation. Certain business sectors look very vulnerable and with the oil price so low any project which requires oil at, say, $80 a barrel can expect to be mothballed. The downstream receives inadequate investment – especially in the Shell brand, and whilst is may stutter on for a while eventually Shell has to dispose of all of its assets from the refinery fence to the consumer.

As a shareholder and one who is concerned that Shell succeeds I would actually rather see a smaller, fitter, more profitable Shell which concentrates on what it is really good at – upstream oil and gas. Such a corporation would not only be more viable but it also would not need to create illusions about its business and ridiculous boasts that it is “creative”. Sticking to the knitting and transparency would be the strategy that many of us would welcome – and if in his few remaining months Jeroen can set this in motion then that would be a legacy of which this eminently decent man could be proud.

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