Client: Various oil companies
PR Team: In-house PR departments
Campaign: Negating the impact of the ’Dump the Pump’ protest
Timescale: July - Ongoing
Drivers in the UK pay the highest levels of fuel tax of any in Europe at
75 per cent - and in recent months petrol prices have hit record
The haulage industry has for some time lobbied for fuel tax to be
lowered. On 1 August a protest was organised by two private individuals
over the internet. Consumers were urged to ’Dump the Pump’ and not fill
up on petrol for the day - and every Monday - to register their
disapproval of the high tax rate.
The support for the action was reported as being patchy, with more
impact being felt further from London, but this may have partly been due
to a coincidental drop in forecourt prices, first by supermarket groups
days before the protest and then by the major oil companies the
Assuming, as the oil companies say, the price cuts were coincidental and
simply reflected changes in world markets, the corporate response to the
protest was remarkably cool. Mindful that the action was actually
directed at the Government, the big oil companies adopted a PR policy of
non-engagement, hoping not to draw any extra attention to it. But the
campaign attracted a significant amount of press coverage and, with the
organisers planning to continue the protest each week, oil companies
could yet find themselves more involved, especially giant BP Amoco which
was named as the specific target of the second week’s protest.
The oil companies wanted to minimise the protest’s size; limit its
length, (its organisers want to continue indefinitely); minimise the
amount of press coverage the protest achieves; and to deflect any
negative coverage towards the Government.
Strategy and Plan
The three sectors of the petrol retail market (major oil companies,
independent retailers and supermarket retailers) adopted different PR
strategies. The four major companies - BP Amoco, Esso, Shell and Texaco
- used broadly the same strategy which was to play down the protest.
Most confined themselves to answering press calls on the day of the
protest and some were only prepared to answer questions on how badly
they had been affected by the boycott rather than the subject of
BP stated that the action only amounted to customer demand fluctuating
over the period of a few days in a way that was easily manageable.
Meanwhile, the Petrol Retailers’ Association, which represents the
interests of the country’s 3,700 independent retailers, took a different
tack. The PRA decided the dispute gave it an opportunity to put
information out about the position of its members in relation to the oil
companies and the Government.
It issued a proactive press release before the first ’Dump the Pump’,
making the point that the dispute was about Treasury policy rather than
its members, and also that its members were at the bottom of the food
chain. They make just 0.75p on a litre of fuel.
The supermarket groups were in a more fortunate position as the Friday’s
price cut meant there was some ’good’ news to tell on the Monday.
J Sainsbury plc- the first national retailer to cut prices - put out a
press release on Friday and found enquiries on the subject ’rolled into’
discussions on the dispute on Monday.
Measurement and Evaluation
There was enormous press and broadcast coverage of ’Dump the Pump’,
especially of the first event. It’s too early to say how the petrol
companies will come out of the campaign in the medium term, but the PRA
believes it ’fairly well achieved’ its objective of distancing the
petrol retailers from the high prices. The PRA also believes the
public’s patchy response to the campaign was partly a result of its
educational proactive strike on the Friday.
Even if the petrol companies are badly hit by the boycott, they are
unlikely to say by how much. BP Amoco especially must try to distance
itself from the action as far as possible, and continue to make sure the
emphasis is on the Treasury.