Corporate Communications: Shell places its trust in the benefits of PR - As it seeks to create a new, eco-friendly image for itself, Shell has turned for advice to public relations, ahead of advertising, choosing Fishburn Hedges to lead its repositioning

Last week, oil giant Shell International launched its first global corporate communications campaign in an effort to turn around its image and position itself as a caring, ethical and responsible company. The campaign will rebrand Shell as an open company keen to listen to its stakeholders and adapt accordingly.

Last week, oil giant Shell International launched its first global

corporate communications campaign in an effort to turn around its image

and position itself as a caring, ethical and responsible company. The

campaign will rebrand Shell as an open company keen to listen to its

stakeholders and adapt accordingly.



The new strategy is the product of an eight-month review of the firm’s

PR and advertising, handled jointly by Fishburn Hedges and J Walter

Thompson.



Although pounds 10 million of the pounds 15.6 million budget for the new

campaign is devoted to global advertising in print media, FH is managing

the campaign rather than JWT.



Shell’s external affairs vice president, Pieter Berkhout, explains that

the result is ’a corporate communications programme that should see to

it that Shell is continuously in touch with society. We want to finish

the era of introspection.’



Shell’s previous lack of contact with its stakeholders was spectacularly

displayed in 1995 - Shell’s ’annus horribilis’ - when it weathered two

public storms over its human rights record in Nigeria and the

environmental impact of its planned disposal of the Brent Spar oil

platform in the North Sea.



The FH-JWT partnership is a reversal of the typical agency situation in

which the advertising agency is in prime position. Shell’s decision to

take this angle is all the more significant because of the sheer weight

its brand carries.



The decision stems from the fact that Shell saw advertising as

important, but still only a small part of what needed to be done. An

agency better able to understand the broader communications imperatives

and wider audiences - consumers, but also employees, environmental

groups and political opinion-formers - needed to be in the driving

seat.



FH managing director John Williams, who is leading the Shell account,

argues that the decision is sound. ’Ad people have a limited knowledge

of PR,’ he says. ’They are still very focused on the consumer, whereas

we are used to juggling several audiences and seeing different angles.

I’m not suggesting they’re narrow-minded, but we’re definitely more

diffuse in our ways.’



As the overall account coordinator, Williams reports to Berkhout and has

taken on the client role vis-a-vis JWT and the third agency involved in

the campaign, new media specialist Traffic Interactive. Williams says:

’Shell wanted to see advertising as only one of the media available to

us. Advertising is a component in the communications mix and it has to

argue its case. There could have been no advertising component. That was

an option.’



For a PR agency to be cracking the whip is, in Williams’ words, ’weird

for both sides’, perhaps especially for him, as an ex-JWT staffer. But

he argues that the relationship works well, a view shared by JWT

director Christy Stewart-Smith, who led the ad agency’s day-to-day work

on the Shell account.



Williams and Stewart-Smith have certainly had a chance to get to know

each other over the past eight months: the two account teams met at

least once each week and sometimes spoke every day. ’Knowing we have the

power has meant we have a more relaxed attitude, rather than the usual

fight to give PR authority in the mix,’ Williams says.



As it turned out, there were no major disagreements over JWT’s ad

campaign.



The ads, which launch next Monday are strongly Shell-branded but are

issues-based - a testament to FH’s input. They do not carry a strapline,

a novelty thought up by JWT, but are designed to show, in Williams’

words, that ’there’s no one single thought we want to leave the audience

with. The response to the campaign must come from the audience - that’s

definitely a PR-led idea - whereas straplines tell audiences what to

think.’



The ads themselves emotively juxtapose negative words and images with

positive ones, suggestive of the fact that profits can come with

principles.



’Exploit ... Or Explore?’ is one headline that runs over contrasting

pictures of a rain forest on the one hand being dug up and on the other,

flourishing with plants. The copy stresses Shell’s commitment to

maintaining bio-diversity.



As well as buying space in the print media, the campaign includes

classic media relations, which FH is handling in conjunction with

Shell’s nine-strong press office in London. This will include launching

Shell’s second annual social report next April. The new corporate

communications campaign also involves on-line banner advertising

intended to drive visits to Shell’s web site, designed by Traffic. Once

at the Shell web site, it is possible to take part in a discussion

forum.



But just as important for Shell’s in-house team and FH is the internal

communications dimension, which FH is overseeing alongside Shell’s

in-house internal PR staff. Given that Shell employs more than 100,000

people and operates in 132 countries, ensuring the social and ethical

business principles agreed on centrally become a reality on the ground

is no mean feat. To complicate matters, all the contractors Shell uses

will have to abide by Shell’s new ethical principles if they want to

carry on dealing with the company.



Fishburn Hedges’ leadership of the Shell brief exemplifies PR’s

much-discussed move from an implementational to a strategic discipline,

particularly as the final campaign involves only small elements of

traditional PR means, such as media relations.



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