How to get the BBC close to the Shell bosom

Looking for an efficient campaign to discredit critics, embrace friendly media and turn black into white? Israel, Sri Lanka and others, take note, truth could be on your side:

Secret internal company documents from the oil giant Shell show that in the immediate aftermath of the execution of the Nigerian activist and writer Ken Saro-Wiwa it adopted a PR strategy of cosying up to key BBC editors and singling out NGOs that it hoped to “sway”.

The documents offer a previously hidden insight into 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 activists’ deaths.

In June last year, the company paid $15.5m 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 agreed 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 1995, two months after Saro-Wiwa’s death. The strategy was described as “most confidential”.

In a similar move to Tony Blair’s re-branding of the 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 10 November 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, who would later become Shell chairman, emphasised that everyone must “sing to the same ‘hymn sheet’.”

The documents outline a tactic of divide and rule, where Shell planned to work with some of its critics but isolate others. Under the “occupying new ground” scenario, the document 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 document suggests building relationships with the organisations and encouraging “buy-in to the complexity of the issue”.

Another key group Shell was interested in winning over was the press. The documents complain that the media was too willing to report the views of pressure groups. It wanted to generate media coverage showing ” ‘the other version’ of events/issues”. Other company documents identified which media outlets would be targeted. It said that “stable relationships” had already been established with the Financial Times, Daily Telegraph, Times, and the Independent.

The BBC was one of the organisations singled out by Shell’s PR department. One of the documents reveal that “relationships are underdeveloped” with the BBC World Service. It continues: “We will identify and cultivate important editorial and senior management staff through a contact programme.” 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”.

Text and images ©2024 Antony Loewenstein. All rights reserved.

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