Shell UK head of media relations Sally Hepton defends oil leak media handling

Shell UK's head of media relations has defended the oil giant's handling of the oil leak in the North Sea, explaining the 'slowness' was because of the need to give a clear picture.

Shell: comms was slow to react to Gannet oil leak
Shell: comms was slow to react to Gannet oil leak

The leak from Shell’s Gannet Alpha platform, about 112 miles east of Aberdeen, is the biggest in the region for more than a decade.

It was discovered on Wednesday last week but only made public on Friday evening. On Saturday, Shell said the flow had been brought ‘under control’, but on Tuesday it emerged that a secondary leak was still spilling oil into the sea from the same source, although at a much reduced rate.

Insignia Communications founder Jonathan Hemus said: ‘The impression that Shell has been tardy and lacking in openness in its approach to communication has resulted in criticism from a number of stakeholders. Indeed, the way in which it has communicated about the leak has become almost a bigger issue than the leak itself.’

Hemus said that the delay in communication is probably based on ‘discomfort’ in making statements until every last detail is absolutely clear.

‘Shell is the latest in a long line of businesses to face the reputational challenges of a more conservative approach to communication,’ he added.

The comms around the leak has been handled by Shell UK’s in-house team, led by head of UK media relations Sally Hepton.

Hepton admitted to PRWeek that she has received external agency advice on this matter, adding that Shell does not comment on its use of suppliers.

Crisis comms agency Regester Larkin lists Shell as a client on its website, although Hepton denied the agency has advised on this matter. The company also retains City agency Finsbury for financial comms.

Hepton said: ‘When it comes to the point of perceived lack of transparency, we told the authorities of the leak immediately, as we should. However, we do recognise that we were slow to tell the general public. We wanted to be able to give a clear picture of what was happening and how we would respond before engaging more widely.’

However, Hepton defended her department’s work, adding that technical director Glen Cayley has done a number of interviews including with the Today programme. There has also been daily media updates and a joint press conference with the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) on Wednesday and radio and TV interviews throughout the week.

Hepton added that Shell has also been tweeting on the subject and placing videos on its website.

When asked whether she feels pressure to be more open, Hepton responded: ‘We feel we are being open and we will continue to be so.’  

Porter Novelli EMEA head of corporate Alex Woolfall said that while Shell is right to want to provide factually accurate information about the spill, that requirement needed to be communicated more effectively.

‘The way to avoid being accused of keeping something secret is to explain what you're doing; why and when you will be able to say more.’

Woolfall added that Shell has failed to provide a ‘human face’ so that ‘we can see that it is as appalled at what's happened as we are’, comparing the response to BP’s former CEO Tony Hayward, who was lambasted for his own lack of emotion.

Hanover director Gavin Megaw said that the comms team has not had enough operational information to enable it to be proactive.

‘This is another clear example of why comms practitioners must fight hard to be involved in senior operational discussions within their organisations’ outside crises,’ he said. ‘We all must raise our voices to gain access where it counts.’

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