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Greenpeace 1, Shell 1

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Screen Shot 2015-07-31 at 19.22.09 Himler Contributor: Media, tech & marketing through the eyes of a seasoned PR strategist. : 31 July 2015

It was the early nineties and I was headed down to Houston with a video crew in tow. Our task: to capture generic footage of motorists filling up at Shell gas stations for use as part of a satellite news feed for an imminent company news announcement.

During the planning and prep session with Shell Oil Company’s CEO, its head of refining and others, I was informed that this would be the company’s first-ever news conference(!). Shell planned to introduce the nation’s first “environmentally enhanced” gasoline*, SU2000E, and we were retained to mount the presser and feed the footage to the dozen cities in which would be available.

The news conference drew a large media contingency. Key executive soundbites and cutaways of the event were quickly added to that afternoon’s satellite news feed, which resulted in multiple TV news segments featuring SU2000E in every target Shell market. Most significantly, and much to the client’s surprise, that news coverage directly translated into measurable sales bumps at pumps.

This week, Shell Oil Company found itself under a much less flattering media spotlight when one of its ice-breaking ships attempted to leave Portland, Oregon’s harbor en route to the Arctic for the start of controversial oil drilling. Instead of a contingency of fawning journalists, the company was met with a “wall of protesters” who had suspended themselves from the St. Johns Bridge and dozens of kayakers and canoeists on the water below them, effectively blocking the ship’s passage out of the harbor.

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The audacious protest by Greenpeace activists is part of a trend in environmental activism wherein some NGOs are resorting to physical histrionics to break through the continuous clutter of news crossing one’s media and social streams. I’ll always remember one of the pioneers in the uber-activist genre – Earth First! – whose members tied themselves to (or even booby trapped) giant trees that were slated to be cut down

Just this week, The New York Times reported on an act of eco-vigilantism in a remarkable piece sub-titled:

“For 110 days and across two seas and three oceans, crews stalked a fugitive fishing ship considered the world’s most notorious poacher.”

What’s a publicly-traded company like Shell, which is beholden to many different publics, to do? It already touts its “sustainable” approach to environmental stewardship via its “owned” media channels.

In the case of the Portland blockade, the company averted direct confrontation with the Greenpeace activists. Instead, the Coast Guard and local law enforcement took the lead in physically removing the protesters from the river.

In spite of getting slapped with a fine, Greenpeace declared victory by virtue of having delayed the ship’s departure and, of course, drawing media attention to its cause. Shell, for its part, stayed relatively out of the fray and by so doing avoided elevating and extending the news coverage.

More significantly, the company appears to have deflected its portrayal as the real villain compared to new U.S. government regulations that opened the gates to Arctic drilling in the first place. From The Oregonian:

“Their goal was to delay Shell’s ship – hopefully pushing back the difficult work of drilling for oil in the Arctic long enough that the company would lose a year of work. In the time before things thawed next year, protesters hoped for political change in Washington, D.C.”

Finally, it should be noted that not all environmental NGOs are as vitriolic in their approach to defending their cause. Many in fact are engageable by companies seeking sustainable (that word again) policies and practices that will allow them to do both good and well.  Building an affinity with these other, sometimes more receptive third-party environment organizations can only help, especially when less friendly groups attack.

* The additive that made SU2000E “environmentally enhanced” – MTBE – was later determined to be a toxic pollutant to ground water. It was soon banned.

SOURCE

royaldutchshellplc.com and its sister websites royaldutchshellgroup.com, shellenergy.website, shellnazihistory.com, royaldutchshell.website, johndonovan.website, shellnews.net and shell2004.com are all owned by John Donovan. There is also a Wikipedia article.

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