ChevronTexaco isn't very happy with The Sacramento Bee. Specifically, the giant oil company feels the Bee's coverage of an ongoing lawsuit in Ecuador is slanted in favor of the 30,000 rain-forest residents who claim that from 1971 to 1992 a subsidiary of what was then simply Texaco dumped massive amounts of oily waste in the region.
In a letter to the Bee, a ChevronTexaco spokesperson accused the reporter of covering the trial from "a strong bias," and claims the newspaper "failed to inform its readers of key facts." But the Bee - which apparently failed to get the memo from CBS that capitulation is now the fashion for media outlets under fire - fired back, even countering the oil company's spin ("the area of oil activities operated by Texaco Petroleum constituted just two one-hundredths of one percent of the Ecuadorian rainforest") by pointing out that such an area covers tens of thousands of acres.In its legal defense, ChevronTexaco has repeatedly made the case that it broke no laws.
"We did everything that we were supposed to do," Ricardo Reis Viega, the company's general counsel for Latin America, told a news conference last month. "We have been released [by the Ecuadorean government] of any additional work that might be necessary."
That argument might be sufficient for the company to prevail in a Latin-American courtroom, but it's a shameful defense to mount in the court of world opinion. The standard to which Western corporations should be held accountable - and increasingly are being held accountable - is whether they behave in developing countries any differently than they would in their domestic markets.
Would ChevronTexaco have dumped so much oily waste in California? Would it then have felt no obligation to the community to clean up after itself? Critics of multinational corporations who fear that globalization will make them stronger and more pervasive fail to appreciate the impact that global transparency can have.
Today, the global media is able to shine an unprecedented spotlight on the overseas activities of large companies, and increasingly American consumers are showing their displeasure. College students are refusing to buy sneakers made in sweatshops, school children are sending back Halloween candy because cocoa is produced by child labor, and motorists are boycotting filling stations because oil companies show little respect for the environment. Large corporations may be getting bigger, but Huaorani Indians who made their way to the courtroom to hear the evidence against ChevronTexaco have infinitely greater moral authority - and that gives them surprising power in today's world. Companies that don't want to see that power turned against them will have to abide by higher principles, rather than lax local laws, if they want to keep their license to operate.Paul Holmes has spent the past 16 years writing about the PR business for publications including PRWeek, Inside PR, and Reputation Management. He is currently president of The Holmes Group and editor of www.holmesreport.com.