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Time for multi-dimensional communication with oil companies

Friday, 15 August 2008


By Guest Author Dr Arlo Brady

For the second time in the last couple of years the Anglo-Dutch oil giant Shell has found itself at the heart of the debate about greenwash in advertising.

In 2007 Shell ads suggested rather bizarrely that it had been using its waste CO2 emissions to grow flowers: the ad was condemned by the British Advertising Standards Authority (ASA). One year later another Shell ad has been banned. This time for suggesting that the company’s Canadian oil sand extraction operation was sustainable. Shell does not appear to have learnt its lesson.

But what is that lesson? Is it that oil majors should steer clear of environmental messaging in their communications? Is it that they should simply be more honest and transparent in their use of language? Or is it that they simply need to find a new way to communicate? 

In the case of the Canadian oil sand operation, Shell should have almost certainly avoided any environmental messaging. To imply that their Canadian oil sand operation is sustainable is very misleading. By definition there is nothing sustainable about using any form of fossil fuels, let alone oil sands. It is universally acknowledged that extracting oil from sand is relatively inefficient, and it is only viable while the oil price is high. The process involves a significant energy input, and results in the emission of high levels of nitrogen oxide, sulphur dioxide and other organic compounds.

In this instance it is not possible to justify Shell’s Canadian operations on environmental grounds. It may well be that other oil sand operations are more polluting, but that reality just makes Shell the best of a bad bunch – certainly no excuse for bragging.

Despite the immense environmental challenges that oil sand operations present, it is worth acknowledging that there are a number of stand-alone political and economic justifications for Shell undertaking oil sand operations in Canada. In the week that Russia flexed its muscles in one of its former Soviet republics, the issue of energy security is very much at the top of the political agenda. This is a fact that has not gone unnoticed by Shell’s rival BP. Their latest billboard campaign tells us that “There’s energy security in energy diversity”. A statement that no one can really take issue with. Having said that, BP could not resist a controversial ending. The ad goes on to tell us that “BP provides oil, natural gas, solar, wind, biofuels and options”. This strap-line is debatable as it suggests that BP has an equitable interest in a variety of forms of energy including renewables, when in fact it is still overwhelmingly an oil business. Indeed now, under the leadership of Tony Hayward, it is arguably more oil-focussed than at any point in the last 10 years.

My point here is that Shell could have chosen a number of other messages about its operations in Canada that would have raised fewer eyebrows. Instead, it chose to attempt to put a positive spin on a message that could not actually be justified: an error of judgement, or perhaps a deliberate attempt to shift public perception in the wrong direction?

It is very easy from an external point of view to imagine that businesses like Shell have malicious intent when developing their ads. Being on the “inside” as often as I am on the “outside”, I know that this is unlikely to be the case. Shell is in a difficult position when it comes to the environment. The extraction and use of fossil fuels is not “sustainable”. As Lord Browne, the former CEO of BP, recognised, a wholesale shift of focus away from oil is required. But this won’t happen overnight, the old proverb “A journey of a thousand miles starts with one step” still applies.

Oil is still at the heart of our society, and we are all in some way responsible for its continued use. Businesses like Shell have a responsibility to work to minimise the environmental impact of oil extraction, and they need to find a way to tell us what they are doing.

This communication needs to be more sophisticated than simple one-way advertising. It needs to be three-dimensional, involving the use of feedback mechanisms and independent commentators. Without feedback, Shell will become more isolated, and will have little incentive to make the improvements that are in all of our interests. Without independent commentators, Shell will not enhance its own credibility and reputation.

The most responsible course of action for an oil-major at this stage would be to sit back and enter into a transparent debate with its stakeholders about the future of global energy. This would acknowledge the role that energy suppliers play in society, and help individuals and governments to understand that to make a paradigm shift we must all be willing participants.

Dr Arlo Brady is an adviser on sustainability and reputation at the strategic marketing and communications consultancy Freud Communications

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