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
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
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.