Editorial: Under pressure to co-operate

As the long consultation over how to scrap the redundant Brent Spar oil storage hulk draws to a close, the ripples from that 1994 sea and media battle between Shell and Greenpeace are still making themselves felt.

As the long consultation over how to scrap the redundant Brent Spar

oil storage hulk draws to a close, the ripples from that 1994 sea and

media battle between Shell and Greenpeace are still making themselves

felt.



The Brent Spar climbdown was a huge and costly embarrassment to Shell,

and it was something of a surprise to the protesters who had never

before managed to force a multi-national into such a U turn.



The episode made many companies realise that their business decisions

can no longer be taken in isolation from public concern and media

scrutiny without risking a similar crisis - even if they believe they

have right on their side. And it is not just on environmental issues

that companies are learning this lesson. It applies equally to human

rights, child labour and other social concerns and has led to the

introduction of the SA 8000 ’social accountability’ standard, which will

be available to UK companies from 1 January.



Corporate PR advisers will play an increasingly important role in

helping companies to adjust to this new climate of corporate

responsibility. One of the things they must advise is that companies

will benefit from talking to their pressure group opponents.



This process has already started. Witness the extraordinary sight of BP

chief executive John Browne addressing a Greenpeace conference last

week. He did not enjoy an entirely smooth ride, but his reception was

less remarkable than the fact that he was there at all. From here it is

not that big a leap to imagine a day when environmental groups work hand

in hand with companies like BP to formulate policy.



But as we predicted in the immediate aftermath of the Battle of Brent

Spar, it is arguably those pressure groups which now face the bigger PR

problem.



Previously, the noble motives for their protests have always justified

the melodramatic stunts and dodgy science sometimes employed. But

suddenly the plucky mosquito finds not only that it has the power to

divert the elephant’s course, but that the elephant is finally paying

attention to its insistent whine.



Pressure groups are poised to become influential partners in a working

relationship with big business. But this will mean laying down the paint

guns and taking a seat at the negotiating table. This will be the

hardest step of all, because it means sharing responsibility for the

course of events rather than just carping from the sidelines. And, as

any new Labour minister will tell you, it is one thing to oppose but it

is quite another to govern.



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