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Social media #fail: how Greenpeace let Shell off the hook over Arctic drilling

Greenpeace has an impressive track record on social media engagement so why has its most recent campaign, an elaborate hoax of Shell’s Arctic exploration, seemingly flopped?

It’s not often that a major oil company comes off looking more social savvy than either a major media company or one of the world’s leading social media platforms.

But that’s exactly the position Royal Dutch Shell finds itself after a week when NBC and Twitter – corporate partners during the Olympics – managed to bumble their way into major social media #FAIL by conspiring to silence a vocal Twitter critic of the US media network.

For those of you not caught up in the goldfish bowl atmosphere of social media discussing social media the screw-up occurred when someone at Twitter suggested to NBC that they might consider complaining about Guy Adams, the acerbic US correspondent for the Independent who had been using the microblogging network to vent his fury at NBC’s coverage of the games. In a Tweet of particular pique, Adams published the corporate email address of Gary Zenkel, the NBC executive responsible for the network’s Olympic’s coverage. Twitter suggested to NBC that this contravened the social network’s privacy conditions. NBC ran with the complaint and Twitter duly suspended Adams.

And that’s when the fun started as media commentators lambasted Twitter for what looked like a glaring conflict of interest and suggested it raised serious questions about the judgement of a platform that has always insisted it was their just to enable conversation not to curate for tone or quality. Within days, Twitter and NBC had apologised and Adam’s account was restored.

So what has this got to do with Shell? Well, for more than two months now the oil giant has been on the receiving end of a highly sophisticated social media shellacking courtesy of Greenpeace and agitprop activists The Yes Men. And, for those two months, the oil giant has avoided many of the pitfalls experienced by some of Greenpeace’s other corporate targets.

The aim of the campaign is to highlight Shell’s leading role in exploring the Arctic for new oil reserves. Greenpeace and The Yes Men have created a near identical version of Shell’s own website called Arctic Ready and they’ve packed it with content that savages the oil company albeit in the muted language of so many corporate websites. Then, apeing hilarious failed crowdsourced campaigns of the past such as the 2006 “Design Your own Chevy Tahoe”, the site launched a competition to create captions that would accompany Shell’s very real “Let’s Go” campaign. Entries included such gems as “Birds are like sponges…for oil” and (against a picture of an Arctic fox) “You can’t run your SUV on cute.”

Piling on the pressure, Arctic Ready also released a video on YouTube purportedly showing a real Shell press conference where a demonstration mini oil rig spews oily liquid. It’s pretty funny and has been viewed over 800,000 times. And they created a fake Twitter feed, Shell Social Media team, @ShellisPrepared a la @BPGlobalPR, to deliver 140 character barbs all supposedly in the name of the company. That feed pretended to be angry at the spoofing of the Let’s Go advertisements (just like Chevrolet was back in 2007) and even tweeted:

“Linking to any ads at will get your name forwarded to #Shell legal.”

Oh, and of course there’s the obligatory Facebook page.

It’s a massive undertaking with the dual aim of first, raising awareness that Shell is preparing a major exploration effort in one of the most eco-sensitive parts of the world and second, provoking Shell into a heavy-handed cease and desist response that would simply bring more attention to the Arctic Ready campaign and help turn a piece of agitprop into a global social media movement that could persuade Shell not to drill in the Arctic.

If that sounds far-fetched, consider the success of previous Greenpeace campaigns. In 2007 its Dove Slaughter YouTube campaign helped push Unilever to rethink its sourcing of Indonesian palm oil. In 2010, its KitKat Killer campaign and Facebook assault so embarrassed Nestle that the company also agreed to change its palm oil sourcing (helped a lot by Nestle’s own social media naivety it should be said). Even as far back as 2005, Greenpeace was using spoof video to successfully “punk” Kimberly Clark and its brand Kleenex over the sourcing of its raw materials.

When it comes to going toe-to-toe with big corporates and winning, Greenpeace has an impressive track record. So why does Arctic Ready feel like a failure despite the impressive social media engagement numbers of nearly 4 million page views and 12,000 user-generated ads?

I’d argue there are three reasons why the Greenpeace campaign can’t be judged a true social media success.

The first is the lack of a clear call to action. What exactly does Greenpeace want the agitated social media public to do to stop Shell? On Greenpeace’s main site it’s clear they want to mobilise a global campaign to create a oil-free Arctic sanctuary. Social media campaigning is excellent at this type of push the button activism. But the Arctic Ready website can’t mobilise that precisely because the site does such a good job replicating Shell’s own identity.

The second is that by investing so many resources and by focussing so much online attention to what, frankly is a one-off joke, Greenpeace runs the risk of giving the impression (even if that isn’t the case) that it has taken its eye off what is actually taking place in the Arctic right this moment.

Since Arctic Ready launched, Shell’s own highly polished attempts to demonstrate an environmentally and socially responsible approach to Arctic oil exploration have been undermined first by an admission that the generators on its Noble Discoverer drilling rig could not meet Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) emission standards, and then by photos, posted on Facebook and in the local Alaskan press, of the same rig slipping its mooring at Dutch Harbor, Alaska and drifting perilously close to the shore. With memories of the Exxon Valdez oil tanker grounding and spill still vivid in Alaskan memories, the suggestion that the Shell rig could have run aground prompted an immediate response from Shell. It dispatched divers to confirm that the rig didn’t hit the shore and posted a statement on its website saying: “Our goal remains flawless operations and this is an incident Shell and Noble Drilling take very seriously. Even a “near miss” is unacceptable.” In a further blow to the company, this week Shell acknowledged it will scale back its drilling operations this year because of the logistical and regulatory problems it is facing.

The Arctic Ready Twitter feed made fun of these issues but, unlike the BP spoof feed that ridiculed BP’s response to the Deepwater Horizon blowout, the jokes fell flat because most people weren’t aware of the problems they were looking to ridicule. Meanwhile, the news and relevant content on Greenpeace’s main site got subsumed by Arctic Ready just when its analysis could have had the most value. The site features dispatches from two Greenpeace ships currently heading to the Chukchi Sea area where Shell intends to drill, it reported on the discovery of deep sea corals around the drill site and it features an infographic highlighting what Greenpeace sees as the sustainability risks of Arctic drilling. But you wouldn’t learn about this from the Arctic Ready site.

The third reason was Shell’s own reaction to Arctic Ready. Simply put, it didn’t take Greenpeace’s bait. Instead Shell let the elaborate ruse play out without commenting, save for one statement on its website acknowledging the campaign but making clear that Shell didn’t have anything to do with it. And Arctic Ready makes it easy for them to do so. By pretending to be Shell and doing such a thorough job of trying to hijack its brand, Greenpeace caused an initial shock with the way it portrayed the oil company. But as soon as people realised that Shell had nothing to do with this and were on the receiving end of an elaborate hoax the sting went out of the stunt. By continuing to perpetuate the prank when there are newsworthy elements of Arctic drilling that warrant attention, Greenpeace continues to make it easy for Shell to say nothing and just keep drilling.

Which surely wasn’t the point of Arctic Ready.

Matthew will be leading our sustainability short on how to use social media within sustainability on Wednesday 26 September. To sign up to the workshop, and for more information, click here.

Matthew Yeomans provides editorial consultancy for many companies. He is the co-author of #FAIL: The 50 Greatest Social Media Screw-Ups


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