The oil company went into damage control after the execution of activists 15 years ago.
LONDON: Secret internal documents from Shell show that in the immediate aftermath of the execution of the Nigerian activist and writer Ken Saro-Wiwa, the oil company adopted a PR strategy of cosying up to BBC editors and singling out non-government organisations it hoped to ”sway”.
The documents reveal previously hidden efforts by the company to deflect the PR storm that engulfed it after the Nigerian activist was hanged by the country’s military government. Shell faced accusations that it had colluded with the government over the deaths of the writer and other activists.
In June last year, the company paid $US15.5 million to settle a legal action over the deaths in a federal court in New York without admitting liability. It was one of the largest payouts by a multinational corporation charged with human rights violations.
The documents, which were part of this legal case but were never made public, describe the company’s ”crisis management strategy and plan”. This was finalised by Shell’s senior executives at a secret meeting in Ascot in January 1996, two months after Saro-Wiwa’s death.
The strategy, described as ”most confidential”, was similar to Tony Blair’s rebranding of the British Labour Party. The executives considered renaming the oil company ”New Shell” in an effort to shake off some of the recent bad publicity.
Saro-Wiwa had been a vocal critic of Shell’s activities in the Niger Delta and of the Nigerian military government. His hanging 15 years ago, on November 10, 1995, prompted international outrage and a public backlash against Shell. The executions led to Nigeria’s suspension from the Commonwealth for three years.
The company’s ”crisis plan” focused on what the documents refer to as ”the message” and getting the ”style, tone, content and timing right, reflecting greater humanity”. Philip Watts, later Shell’s chairman, emphasised that everyone must ”sing to the same hymn sheet”.
The documents outline a divide-and-rule tactic – Shell planned to work with some of its critics but isolate others. Under the ”occupying new ground” scenario, the documents detail how Shell would ”create coalitions, isolate the opposition and shift the debate”.
Dividing NGOs into friends and foes, Shell emphasised the need to ”work with [and] sway ‘middle of the road’ activists”. The Body Shop, Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth were seen as unlikely to change their position. One suggested tactic to counter these organisations was to ”challenge [the] basis on which they continue their campaign against Shell in order to make it more difficult for them to sustain it”. Human rights organisations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch were seen as more easily persuaded. The documents suggest building relationships with the organisations and encouraging ”buy-in to the complexity of the issue”.
Shell was also keen to win over the media. The documents complain the media were too willing to report the views of pressure groups. It wanted to generate media coverage showing ”the other version” of events and issues. Other company documents identified which media outlets would be targeted. It said that ”stable relationships” had already been established in Britain with the Financial Times, The Daily Telegraph, The Times and The Independent.
The BBC was among the organisations singled out by Shell’s PR department. One document reveals ”relationships are underdeveloped” with the BBC World Service and continues: ”We will identify and cultivate important editorial and senior management staff through a contact program.” In particular they wanted to ”build a relationship” with journalist Hilary Andersson, who had recently become the BBC’s Lagos correspondent, as well as ”any of her known contacts in the divisions”.
The documents also noted that ”showing progress with the ‘greening of Shell Nigeria”’ was ”strategically critical” after Saro-Wiwa’s death. Elsewhere, the documents acknowledge the strategy may not be seen as genuine. ”Our present communications strategy could be construed as green imagery,” the authors wrote.
To improve its green image, Shell had to counter accusations of ”environmental devastation”. It planned to produce a video ”to publicise successes” and ”to turn the negative tide”. The most important topic in the film was ”oil spills generally, focusing on sabotage”. This would have had the effect of playing up the impact of illegal activity in causing oil spill pollution in the delta.
In another document,N.A. Achebe, the head of Shell Nigeria, had acknowledged internally ”the majority of incidents arise from operational failures”.
The documents even reveal that Shell discussed whether it should stay in the country in the wake of Saro-Wiwa’s death. One scenario was called ”milking the cow”, whereas the ”pull-out” scenario was seen as ”giving in” or ”caving in”, which would set a ”very negative precedent for the group”. Another reason for not leaving was that ”issues of liability will not disappear even with a total withdrawal”.
A spokesman said the company’s environmental record had improved greatly in recent years. ”The total number of spills in 2009 was 132, against the average between 2005 and 2009 of 175 a year. Thieves or saboteurs spilled about 103,000 barrels from [Shell Petroleum Development Company] facilities in 95 incidents – an average of one spill every four days. This accounted for almost 98 per cent of the volume of oil spilled during the year.” The company declined to comment on its PR strategy in 1995.
The spokesman continued: ”Whatever the cause, SPDC is committed to stopping and containing all spills, recovering and cleaning up as much oil as it can and restoring sites in compliance with regulations.”
But Nnimmo Bassey, the executive director of Environmental Rights Action and head of Friends of the Earth International, said the company had not changed. ”Internationally they polish their image,” he says. ”The claims they make in the international areas do not stand scrutiny on the ground.”