Thursday, April 30, 2009

GREENWASH – The drama and the reality

“He’s a PR man. For an oil company. That’s bottom of the list!

Below TV evangelist. Just above child molester.”

Michael in “Greenwash” by David Lewis

I have just been scanning through the last seven editions of “The Economist” newspaper – and as always it’s a very good read. And in these troubled times it is arguably an essential source to inform about what really might be going on in the world. The pointers to today’s realities come from The Economist’s excellent but anonymous correspondents, the letters and especially for the advertisements – or at the moment the lack of them. The good news is that the “Greenwash” ads, which featured strongly in the newspaper until recently, have vanished! A year or so ago, and for some years before that, upmarket print media was full of mostly disingenuous corporate advertising from oil and energy companies with a common theme. In short Shell, BP, Total, Chevron and even ExxonMobil wanted to convince their “special publics” (as Shell called us) that they were public-spirited companies. In particular the message was that they had a unique contribution to make to the resolution of the world’s energy problems – global warming and all that. A common message was that the “proof” that Shell and the rest really cared was their alleged commitment to not just their traditional oil and gas businesses but also to a whole raft of non-traditional energy initiatives such as renewable forests, solar, wind, hydrogen and the like. It wasn’t just former oil company insiders like me who were sceptical of these claims – all the NGOs and most of the other proponents of Renewables saw through the chimera and christened it “Greenwash”.

The tiny “Orange Tree” theatre in the London Borough of Richmond–Upon-Thames has a justified reputation for putting on original drama – both revivals of forgotten classics and new writing. In the second category we have recently seen David Lewis’s new play “Greenwash” a satirical and very funny demolition job on the PR industry in general and the oil industry in particular – hence the title. The hero of “Greenwash” – or rather the anti-hero – is Alan a middle-aged PR consultant working for a company which sounds very like Shell! “We’re working with the realists and isolating the radicals. That’s accepted strategy! You have to divide them up! If you’re simply confrontational, you just unite them, make them more powerful!” he says talking about his company’s approach to the NGOs. It rings true. Shell, for example, would from time to time cuddle up to NGOs like “Friends of the Earth” whilst distancing themselves from Greenpeace. A divide and rule tactic which worked exactly as Alan suggests that it does.

The mantra chanted by Alan and his like is that managing opinion and reputation is all about managing perceptions. Sure you might need to modify some of the grosser excesses in your business or in your behaviour but in the main you carry on doing what you have always done and carry on doing in the way you have always done it – you just present it in a more palatable way. It’s a bit like a politician saying that they better “get the message across more clearly” – much easier than actually changing what they do. And this is where the Greenwash advertising comes in. Shell’s business, and that of all the other Oil majors, was 99% about exploiting hydrocarbon resources. That’s what they do, what they are good at and what in truth they expect always to do in the future. Shell in particular was hopeless at diversification – only the Petrochemicals sector (itself of course based on hydrocarbons) has survived as a significant business which isn’t directly oil and gas. All the rest, from Nuclear to Metals to Forestry to Agrichemicals to Power Generation have gone. Shell couldn’t (or wouldn’t) make them work. But, so went the argument, Renewables was different and Shell was prepared to put its money where its mouth was.

Take Wind Energy. Back in 2006 Graeme Sweeney, head of Shell Renewables, said that the giant offshore wind project known as the “London Array” would provide a “major breakthrough in the UK low-carbon energy mix”. Shell was part of the consortium that wanted to build the array and was awaiting a planning decision later that year. 'A positive decision would be a clear signal that a substantial contribution could be made by renewable energy if we could all drive this through to a successful conclusion” said Sweeney at the time. A year ago Shell pulled completely away from this project and more recently we have seen an announcement that Shell is pulling out of investments in all renewable technologies (wind, solar and hydro power) completely because they are “not economic”.

There was never a proper balance between rhetoric and reality. The advertising that extolled Shell’s commitment to Renewables in The Economist and in similar publications around the world was clearly designed to deflect criticism that Shell was an old-fashioned smoke-stack loving corporation whose principal business was exploiting the planet’s depleting oil and gas reserves. One TV commercial promoting Shell’s Renewables commitment even said that “One Day it may be our biggest business”. It was bullshitting Greenwash when it appeared and many of us who knew this said so at the time. But Shell was impervious to criticism and this disingenuous corporate advertising continued until quit recently. Shell’s recent virtual withdrawal from the Renewables sector shows what a shameful sham all this was.

Alex Carey quoted in "The Public Relations Industry's Secret War on Activists" said that the “20th century has been characterized by three developments of great political importance: the growth of democracy, the growth of corporate power, and the growth of corporate propaganda as a means of protecting corporate power against democracy." Multinational corporations are subject if not to democratic processes at least to judgment by the media and to revelations by honest activists who seek the truth through all of this propaganda. Despite their almost unlimited budgets and the ability they have to employ PR professionals like Alan in the play “Greenwash” to tell their lies for them eventually hubris will catch them out. Shell was arrogant enough to think that they could present their miniscule and largely irrelevant Renewables business as significant. It wasn’t - but that didn’t stop the Greenwash claiming that it was. And now that the deception has been revealed can we expect an apology and a commitment to tell the truth in the future – don’t bet on it!

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Shell and the shocking bonfire of its vanities

When corporations act as dysfunctionally as all too many in the world of banking and finance have been doing over the past few years it gives the opponents of capitalism a field day. The charge, which is impossible to refute, is one of greed and incompetence and we have seen what happens when these twin venalities work together. The pursuit by directors of a level of personal wealth beyond the comprehension of most of us has been shown to have skewed their decision making and brought their businesses down.

Less in the public eye, but only marginally less venal, have been the multinational oil companies who whilst their behaviours may not have been as borderline fraudulent as some of the banks, have nevertheless been overtly deceiving us for years in a shameful way. Let’s take Royal Dutch Shell for example. Shell was worried about the public perception of its behaviour and, in particular, was concerned that its reputation was damaged in the eyes of some of its key stakeholders. This damage was caused back in the 1990s by insensitive decision-making over such issues as Brent Spar and Nigeria and in the early years of the new century by its “reserves” scandal – the revelation that senior Shell directors had been lying about the corporation’s hydrocarbon reserves. The internal analysis of this reputation problem led to the launch of a series of corporate communications initiatives - including extensive and expensive advertising. Much of this advertising was predicted on the premise that Shell was “corporately responsible” and the reasons to believe this claim was, they said, that they had some sort of unique understanding of the world of global energy.

The communications initiatives that Shell launched focused in particular on the need for energy diversity and claimed not only that renewable energies such as solar, wind and hydrogen had to be part of the mix but that Shell was committed to the Renewables sector for the long term. “One day this may be our biggest business” was the tag line of one of the TV commercials which lauded Shell’s involvement in this sector. But as we have seen recently all of this was a chimera. Those of us with personal experience of working for Shell over many years knew that Shell is the most risk averse of all the oil majors in both its diversification and its acquisition policy. In the main they stick to the knitting – and the knitting is Upstream Oil and Gas – with a bit of downstream thrown in (until, that is, they decide to walk away from marketing and refining which many us believe that they will before too long).

So why did Shell make a fool of itself and open itself up to criticism by getting involved in Renewables in the first place? Why did they get even tentatively involved in a business about which they knew nothing and into which they were clearly, from the start, not prepared to invest any serious money? The answer lies in the reputation management problem referred to earlier. If Shell wanted to be seen as “Responsible” than what better way to do this than to claim that they really cared about the global energy future to such an extent that they would be involved across the energy mix? So small scale and tentative investments were made and Renewables was even given its own status as a “Core business” for a time – along with the real core businesses like the Upstream. But from the start it was always a lie – the executives appointed to run the Renewables sector were far from being the most able around and the amount of time that the company’s really senior executives spent on this sector was minimal. Shell’s heart was never really in it.

Shell had the vanity that it could run a series of self-promoting advertising campaigns that would portray them as energy responsible, innovative and forward thinking. In truth Shell was retreating more and more to the familiar world of dirty old hydrocarbons about which they had a genuine corporate memory. Does this story mean that you can’t believe a thing that Shell tells us in its communications? Sadly I think that it does and that it will be a long time, if ever, before you can believe a word that they say again. Unless there is a proper feedback loop between behaviour and actions, on the one hand, and rhetoric, on the other Shell will not be in a position to do any credible corporate communications at all. It isn’t complicated. Do the right things responsibly. Tell the truth about what you do. Don’t claim that you are committed to things that you are not. Walk the talk and talk the walk. Too much to ask? We shall see…

Saturday, February 28, 2009

The scandal of the grotesque rewards that accrue to failed executives

Enron, Lehman Brothers, Royal Bank of Scotland…Royal Dutch Shell - what have these corporations got in common? Quite a lot actually but what I was thinking of in particular is that they all have issued glossy and self-promoting documents extolling their “Corporate Social Responsibility” (CSR) – and all of them have been brought to their knees by the grotesquely dysfunctional actions of their most senior executives.

I have written before about the illusionary myth that is CSR and I suppose that the one good thing that might come out of the global financial crisis is that none us will ever again trust the disingenuous garbage that corporations choose to throw at us from time to time. The idea that, say, a tobacco giant like BAT can be socially responsible is absurd but they still peddle this nonsense even though they surely can’t expect us to believe it. Do they really believe it themselves? - I doubt it.

But of all the current areas of public disquiet about the behaviour of the top men in multinational corporations it is the obscenely high levels of remuneration that they pay themselves that comes out top. Here is how it works. The Board of Directors appoints one of their number – usually a Non Executive Director – to head up some sort of Remuneration Committee. That Committee is charged with ensuring that the Executive compensation of the CEO and his colleagues is competitive with the remuneration of executives in other corporations. If it isn’t then it is adjusted – always upwards of course! The fallacy of this whole process is for all to see – it creates a spiral of remuneration excesses. To illustrate this I looked back ten year to the late 1990s when I was a middle ranking Shell executive and Mark Moody-Stuart was the CEO. At that time Mark was paid ten times what I was paid. Fair enough you might think – he had a pretty big job. Roll forward to today and the same ratio is now fifty to one! If I was in the same job in Shell, and allowing for inflation of my salary as well, Jeroen van der Veer would be paid at least fifty times what I would be paid – probably much more than this.

But as we have seen with the case of Sir Fred Goodwin of RBS the excess doesn’t stop even when a failed CEO is unceremoniously booted out of his job. Sir Fred qualifies for a pension of £693,000 a year – an entitlement that has caused a furore in Britain, and understandably so. And back in 2002 Sir Philip Watts’ (shown in photograph) severance payment following his forced removal as Managing Director of Shell consisted of a lump sum payment of £1,057,971 and an (index linked) pension of £584,070 per annum. Goodwin and Watts and their ilk would no doubt have justified their extraordinary levels of remuneration by reference to “the market” – that spiral of excess that I described above. And perhaps they would also have said that extremely high levels of responsbility require extremely high rewards – and perhaps they do, but only if these responsibilities are discharged with competence and with honour – which in both their cases certainly did not happen.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Sorry Jeroen it just won’t do…

A friend who knew that I have been a rather vocal critic of Shell’s corporate advertising over the past few years asked me if I felt vindicated by the admissions in George Monbiot’ s recent interview with Jeroen van der Veer: Of course for Jeroen to admit:

"If we are very big in oil and gas and we are so far relatively small in alternative energies, if you then every day only make adverts about your alternative energies and not about 90% of your other activities I don't think that - then I say transparency, honesty to the market”

is a big step forward. The disingenuousness of Shell’s advertising over the years, which has concentrated on the minuscule and unimportant Renewables sector and excluded much mention at all of Shell’s core oil business, was one of my main complaints. But, as Monbiot points out in the article which accompanied the van der Veer interview, Shell continues to mislead in its advertising. The position that the company tries to establish is that it has something unique to offer the energy world and, further, that this something is primarily driven by some sort of altruistic motives. The whole campaign over the years has been and continues to be utterly misleading – as I argued here and here:and here:

It may be an old fashioned concept but when you communicate with stakeholders the first thing that you must do is tell the truth. This not only means that you must make statements that are verifiable but also that you should answer legitimate questions.

Hats off to Jeroen for agreeing to be interviewed by George Monbiot who is arguably the most vocal journalist and writer around on the subject of climate change and whose criticism of the oil industry over the years has been determined and always well researched. But sadly in the interview Jeroen at times looked like a bumbling fool (which he is not) and at other times like a corporate cover-up king - which he certainly is.

Monbiot asked Jeroen pointedly to tell him what the quantum is of Shell’s investment in Renewables. It is a reasonable question – not least because Shell has spent plenty of advertising bucks over the years assuring us that it is committed to alternative energy. But van der Veer absolutely refused to tell Monbiot what the figure is. If you go to Shell’s most recent Annual report you won’t find the answer either. If you do a word search on this huge document for the word Renewables you draw a blank – Shell which so recently trumpeted its commitment to Renewables doesn’t even use the term any more. And if you try and find how much the bits and pieces of wind, solar and the rest are worth you won’t be able to find that either. It’s all hidden away. And, as George Monbiot found out, Jeroen won’t tell you either!

As a long-time Shell employee and now a Shell Pensioner I have always been and remain a Shell loyalist. This may be hard for some to believe in that I have been vociferous in my criticisms over the years. But if you look at my extensive report on the Corrib Gas project, which is now available free as a download here, you will see that I continue to have a high regard for Shell people and in the main what they do and how they do it. What I cannot tolerate, perhaps because I spent so much of my later Shell years working in Marketing and Corporate Communications, is when Shell lies about what it does.

Shell is in a vulnerable state at the moment. A huge cost cutting exercise is in the pipeline which will probably radically change the structure and imperatives of the organisation. Certain business sectors look very vulnerable and with the oil price so low any project which requires oil at, say, $80 a barrel can expect to be mothballed. The downstream receives inadequate investment – especially in the Shell brand, and whilst is may stutter on for a while eventually Shell has to dispose of all of its assets from the refinery fence to the consumer.

As a shareholder and one who is concerned that Shell succeeds I would actually rather see a smaller, fitter, more profitable Shell which concentrates on what it is really good at – upstream oil and gas. Such a corporation would not only be more viable but it also would not need to create illusions about its business and ridiculous boasts that it is “creative”. Sticking to the knitting and transparency would be the strategy that many of us would welcome – and if in his few remaining months Jeroen can set this in motion then that would be a legacy of which this eminently decent man could be proud.