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Shell CEO speaks out on safety and reputation

By John Donovan

Printed below is a leaked 2007 Shell internal email from the then CEO with a bike, Jeroen van der Veer. He sent it to all Shell employees in an attempt to burnish and promote Shell’s reputation just a few years after his involvement in the Shell securities fraud, which put more nails in Shell’s atrocious reputation. Must have been hoping Shell employees had a short memory about his own track record of covering up management misdeeds. No wonder one high level insider branded him “demented and delusional”.

From:  Jeroen van der Veer, Chief Executive
To:  All Shell employees
Date:  10 May, 2007

Subject: Shell’s Reputation – and our role as ambassadors

This letter has been translated into twelve languages.  Please click here for a translation.

Dear Colleagues,

As I said in my first-quarter note last week, this letter is about reputation, and about the role we all play as ambassadors for Shell. I will deal with four key aspects related to nurturing a good reputation. 1. Perceptions about reputation. 2. Things we should realise. 3. What can we do? 4. What should we not do?

Firstly, I see reputation as the trust we have gained with our customers, business partners, governments and other stakeholders. We earn a good reputation by doing what we say – by how we act and talk, both in good times and when we are under pressure.

Our brand is the promise we make – how we live the purpose of Shell, our values and commitments. Reputation is the result of keeping that promise. It is clear that a company can’t build its reputation on what it says it is going to do. And that it is impossible to “talk your way” out of a situation you have “behaved yourself” into.

I admit that I – and my family – get irritated when we see stories in newspapers, magazines and on television that show Shell in a way that we can’t recognise. Such stories portray us as disregarding the expectations of society. We all have examples.

Secondly, let’s not forget, Shell is often a convenient target. We have a high profile, as a hundred-year-old brand with operations in more than a 100 countries. And, due to our values, we actually engage with stakeholders more than most of our competitors.

To manage our reputation, we must be prepared to listen, and to understand what others expect and why they see us the way they do. But we must also actively tell our own story, because we “are” what people know about us.

If the public record in the media paints a picture of Shell without our input, we have left it to others to tell our story. We all know that a negative media picture can over time build political pressure that will affect our ability to do business.

Many groups with a local or single-issue agenda act with this in mind. They try to shape opinion and foster support for their goals by linking developments to build their “case”.

As an energy company, we will always be in the spotlight. It can be as simple as people in your street not wanting a gas station built on the next corner, or as complex as concerns over climate change – and who should do what about it.

We must also realise that we are not always perfect. Remember my message about safety. And that people in general – unlike those with an engineering background – don’t accept even the lowest level of probability that things can go wrong. I’m thinking about the neighbours of a refinery, for example.

Throughout my career in Shell, I have had good and bad experiences in my engagements with groups and individuals who are critical. The good experiences usually resulted from situations where we were prepared to listen to each other. We were able to establish mutual respect, agree on broad shared goals, even agree to disagree – but in the end to achieve a win-win outcome.

So, thirdly, what can you do, as ambassadors for Shell?  And we all are ambassadors, whether we realise it or not. You can listen, to understand the other point of view. And you can provide Shell’s point of view in the clearest possible way. Be succinct.

This means you have to make sure you are informed. You have to think about the Shell position and come up with short and simple explanations, which, of course, must be fact-based. Examples from your own experience will help.

I will give you an example from my experience – when I was a refinery manager people criticised us for not following the rules and regulations. So I studied all the laws and regulations myself. Based on a personal understanding of the facts, I realised that most of the criticism was wrong. It made me a better ambassador, and I took action to change what was not right.

What can the company do to keep you informed? It does a lot, but it can’t replace your own initiative. Do you read the intranet? Do you read the Annual Report, which has just been published? Do you read the Sustainability Report, released on May 8 this year? Do you look up facts to learn about our issues that play a role in your situation? Do you compare with Shell colleagues how to answer “difficult questions”?

I’m a big fan of bringing stakeholders into Shell’s operations, including the media, so they can see for themselves what we do.  But once, during my time at the Pernis refinery, a journalist wrote after a visit that it looked like “a high-tech ghost town where I saw steam and other dangerous gases escaping”. Clearly, you can’t convince them all (I’m still angry about this fellow).

But visits to operations, labs, terminals, retail stations and projects show people that Shell employees are normal people – and often truly environmentally and socially conscious and committed to the triple bottom line.

Finally, what should we not do? If Shell is criticised, we should not react with anger. We should try, by asking questions, to find the real objectives behind the criticism, and react with passion – but not with anger.

We should never over-promise. And we must never forget that although we are a company committed to securing a responsible energy future, we can’t solve all the problems of the world. Example: we share the concern over climate change, but we focus on mitigating CO2 and on reducing flaring – that is our responsibility.

So, my request to you is that you see yourself as a Shell ambassador. I think you will agree, 110,000 good ambassadors will make a real difference.

Best wishes,

Jeroen van der Veer
Chief Executive
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From a high level ‘Shell insider’: Clearly in the mind of that demented and delusional soul Jeroen van der Veer he is innocent…: 6 November 2007

Court document revelations damage Shell CEO, Jeroen van der Veer: 5 November 2007

Jeroen van der Veer cuts a deal with U.S. Attorneys: 12 February 2008

Jeroen van der Veer and the Shell reserves fraud: 22 May 2008

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