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THE TIDE (NIGERIA): Shell and Niger Delta question (A first rate article)

• Wednesday, Mar 8, 2006
The recent abduction of four expatriates attached to Shell Petroleum Development Company (SPDC) at one of its offshore oilfields, “the .Sea Eagle,” and the continued threats of abduction of oil workers once more brings SPDC’s relations with its host communities to the front burner. The abduction of the expatriates and other recent attacks on SPDC’s facilities represent only the tip of the iceberg when one examines the avalanche of problems that Shell has had in its host communities in the Niger Delta.
Unquestionably, Shell has embarked on community development projects in its host communities. The company’s social investments programME dates as far back as the 1950s when it began to provide scholarships and agricultural training programMEs for some residents of the Niger Delta. For example, by 1998, SPDC had built over 71 classroom blocks for communities in the Niger Delta, providing in the process, learning environment for thousands of children.
It also began to provide good drinking water, and roads in its host communities from 1980s, and commenced to provide health facilities (clinics and hospitals) in the Delta region between 1992 and 1994. Shell says by 1998, its community projects supported 22 hospitals and health centers, nine of which were started from the scratch. According to SPDC, by 2000, its medical personnel treated over 8,500 patients at its mobile clinics, compared to nearly 6,000 in 1998. Additionally, the company says it has built new cottage hospitals in the host communities, bringing to 31 the number of hospitals it has built, renovated, or supported by 2000. This number has increased since then. It has also built flea markets in the Delta region, and provided thousands of scholarships for indigenes of the region at primary, secondary and university levels.
Shell further claims that its social responsibility programme in the oil-producing communities include environmental safety projects. For instance since 1996 the company has replaced or buried old flow-lines in order to reduce crude oil spillage, and it has embarked on restoration of vegetation of the mangrove swamp that was destroyed when it cleared the paths for seismic exploration. SPDC says that by 2000, it completed 17 Environmental Impact Assessment and 14 Environmental Evaluation Reports that were approved by the federal government. Further, the company says its rapid response capability to oil spillage increased to 75 per cent by 2000. This is in addition to the company’s environment awareness training for over several thousands of its staff, contractors, host communities, and students.
If Shell has done all these, why has the relationship with its host communities ruptured even to the extent that by early I 990s it was chased out of Ogoni land? Shell is yet to return to Ogoni land. Why does the problem in its host communities persist? Shell’s community relations problem arose in the first place because at the beginning of the Niger Delta crisis, the company denied that its activities led to any oil spillage. A good public relations philosophy its not informed -by denial. Rather, a sound public relations philosophy requires a company to first accept its fault, and then takes steps to mend the problem. Admitting one’s fault publicly helps to build trust. Denial fuels public resentment.
SPDC’s community relations problem persists due to poor communication. In the wake of the Niger Delta crisis, Shell’s communication strategies consisted of “public information” i.e. one-way communication aimed to make the company to look good through propaganda and dissemination of only favourable information. It failed to volunteer negative information about its oil drilling activities, including the deleterious environmental effects of oil spillage and gas flaring.
Shell’s public relations policy should incorporate “two-way symmetrical” communication strategy. This strategy would enable it to use research and dialogue to manage its conflict in the Delta, and to build understanding between the company and its host communities. Two-way symmetrical communication helps an organisation to secure symbiotic, positive and favourable changes in the behaviours of its publics.
For Shell and other multinational oil companies in the Niger Delta, I recommend that they adopt public relations strategies that are guided by a policy of openness, honesty and two-way communication with their host communities’. Two-way conversation and dialogue enables organisations to stem the tide of crises. At the same time, it enables them to build, preserve, sustain and maintain cordial and symbiotic relationship with their host communities. This is because the development, sustenance and maintenance of relationship constitute the central goal of organizations’ public relations strategies.
Oil companies public relations strategies ,in the Niger Delta should incorporate listening and dialogue just as they should be guided by ethical considerations, and respect for cultural values in the communities where they operate. This will enable them to build trust, goodwill, acceptance and understanding with their host communities. The more the Niger Delta-based oil companies are able to build trust and understanding in their host communities the more they will be perceived as good community neighbours. Securing this type of perception will help to reduce or even nip in the bud the chances of crisis in the future.
Further, I recommend that each multinational oil company operating in the Niger Delta should develop a sound crisis communication plan. As organisations do not pray for crisis, it, however, seems crises are inevitable in today’s business dealings with stakeholders that are getting increasingly ethno-religious and socio-culturally diverse. A crisis communication plan enables an organization to know what to say and do immediately a crisis erupts.
When the Niger Delta crisis first began the oil companies seemed to have cared less about listening to the demands of the communities. Yet, listening enables organisations to show more concern and sympathy, an important part of organisations’ public relations plans towards their publics. Instead – the multinational oil companies utilised – and still use to some extent – divide-and-rule tactics, coercion, brute force and violence m attempts to suppress the demands of their host Communities. The key communication principle in dealing with crisis is not to clam up when disaster strikes but to provide prompt, frank and full information.
The lesson learned from the use of instruments of violence, force and coercion in the wake of the Niger Delta crisis should be instructive in future relationships with their host communities.
A policy of sustainable development in which the oil communities are active participants rather than casual economic beneficiaries should underpin the public relations strategies of the oil companies in the Niger Delta.
Further, Shell and other multinational oil companies in the Niger Delta should show a concern for environmental protection and sensitivity towards the issues at the hearts of their host communities – just as they show such sensitivity and concerns in the communities where their parent companies operate in Europe and North America. This would help avert or mitigate future crises in the Niger Delta.

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