It’s not often that a company’s public relations strategy is laid bare for all to see. It’s very rare that these most sensitive of company documents – the ones that talk of using the dark arts of persuasion – ever see the light of day.
But occasionally it happens. It did with big tobacco when litigation in Minnesota forced them to hand over millions of documents in a Depository. Suddenly all the devious PR strategies of targeting youngsters and teenagers to replace dying smokers were exposed. The documents have proved a rich source of information to the tobacco control community for years.
Now – if there are any oil researchers out there – you should look at the documents that are related to the recent Wiwa Versus Shell case that are publicly available for download. For amongst the documents on military collusion are Shell’s secret PR documents, that show how it produced glossy brochures, monitored its critics and tried to divide groups working against it.
The documents show that until 1994 Shell’s PR strategy on the Ogoni issue was to “starve it of oxygen”, but as the issue gained more and more international attention, Shell know that this strategy was no longer tenable, and started to be more proactive.
By now, Shell was obsessed with countering the growing criticism of its environmental record – routine flaring and pollution – and started producing glossy brochures to promote its point of view. However, its greenwashing did not go without problems, as some images were obviously deemed to be unacceptable.
One document noted: “We are pleased that you consider the leaflet well-produced. However, we note your concern over the photograph chosen for the ‘People and the Environment’ part of ‘Nigeria and Shell: Partners in Progress’ and are arranging a reprint. We should like to point out that the picture selected was intended to demonstrate the reality of living in the oil-producing communities, recognising that there are problems for young people there are not necessarily shared by some of their more footurnate colleagues in cities and avoiding the portrayal of a glassy PR image”
Other PR documents warned more bluntly “our present communications could be construed as green imagery”.
It also produced its own film that to counter the critical films made by Glen Ellis of Catma films, such as the Drilling Fields, Delta Force and Heat of the Moment. A “key part” of its “communications tool kit” was using an independent film-maker to make a film called “Heartbeat of Nigeria” – that Shell hoped would be a counter-weight to the Catma films. The company even tried to enlist the Nigerian military regime in the propaganda film.
By early 1995 had “established a communications matrix to identify which politicians, NGOs, church movements, key individuals, media, industry associations etc” were being briefed, with what topics discussed.
The company employed the classic PR tactic of “divide and rule”, trying to divide the opposition, by forming partnerships with “respectable” NGOs and isolating the more radical ones. A Strategy and Action Plan for Nigeria showed that Shell concentrated on “on developing personal relationships with key NGOs in Europe, e.g. UNPO, Amnesty International and WIP, based on mutual trust and a clear understanding of the direction the campaign may be taking, thereby enhancing our ability to influence their thinking… A number of NGOs will, therefore, be invited to visit Shell operations for themselves’.
Whist the moderates were courted, the more critical groups were monitored or isolated. It monitored the movement of key critics such as the Body Shop, when they tried to get to Nigeria.
Even after Saro-Wiwa’s death the Ogoni issue continued to plague Shell, and it continued its divide and rule strategy. One “most confidential” plan for October 1997 to May 1998, shows how Shell aimed to cultivate relationships with supportive NGOs, churches and groups and isolate the “hard-care campaigners.” Shell’s proposed strategy was to “develop a process of ‘structured dialogue’ to share dilemmas with friendly and middle-ground NGOs”, whilst attacking groups such as Bodyshop, Sierra Club and Rainforest Action Network.
Whilst Shell divided its critics, it colluded with the military over its PR campaign. An office memo from the head of Shell, Brian Anderson to colleagues in 1996 asked his colleagues ‘Do I need to discuss with HoS [Head of State Gen. Sani Abacha] before I go on CNN?’
All these documents are available in the Public Access to Electronic Court Records (PACER) database.