Dialogue at Shell: PR & intelligence

Originally posted at my blog spin.off , while working on the book.

Shell was one of the first companies to take a hit in the new-media war. The company was taken by surprise in 1995 when a Greenpeace campaign against sinking the redundant Brent Spar oil platform succeeded. Such a disaster would not be allowed to happen again. Shell International developed an online strategy, which included monitoring what was being said about the company in cyberspace.

For my book Battling Big Business I researched the on line detective agencies hired by Shell. Back then I also found out that the company’s impressive new website offered means of surveillance too. The forums were used to monitor Shell’s critics. For my present PhD research I was curious to know what had happened to the forums since.

At a conference held in the aftermath of the Brent Spar affair to examine ‘the PR disaster of the century’, the company’s new internet manager, Simon May, added a new perspective to the many analyses of the crisis. Shell, he said, had been wrong about its own influence on the media and had completely overlooked a new factor in the game: the internet.

So the company develloped an on line strategy. Part One, The Shell International website, was launched early 1996  to complete a PR offensive emphasizing company’s change of heart – manifest in a new charter of business principles including a comprehensive code of conduct with due allowance for human rights. The basic tenet of http://www.shell.com was the company’s new philosophy of “openness and honesty”: dialogue was the core concept, and sensitive issues were not sidestepped.

But a closer look revealed that the site was also used to monitor its audience. On the discussion forums, organized by subject, anyone was allowed a say about Shell’s practices, uncensored. In addition to that an email facility aimed to answer every message personally within 48 hours. In this early period Shell proudly claimed it was receiving 1,100 email messages a month. But however open this may sound, the company’s responses remained private. The forums were not intended for people to question Shell directly, its internet manager admitted; the email facility was provided for that purpose. May denied that the forums were merely window-dressing, but agreed that “although it is not their primary aim, of course they function as a barometer for what certain people think.”

A few years later though, in 2002, Shell was widely praised for having its own employees answer questions on the forums of the next version of its website (developed by Shandwick-Interactive). In his article ‘Dirty Laundry on the Web’ internet guru David Weinberger cheered that the forums were the evidence that the values proclaimed in The Shell Report were actually taken seriously by at least some people in the company. While stories elsewhere on the Shell site “still smell of the oil from the PR machinery”, the messages on the forum come across as authentic, criticizing the use of certain adjectives by activists, and reluctantly replying with sometimes obvious hurt feelings. “Readers of the forum see in the answers not just words”, Weinberger concluded on a positive note, “but a real sense that the employees care and that the company is confident enough in what it stands for to allow employees to say what they want.”

(Exactly this effect is now used to encourage employees to run personal blogs, detailing their work to give companies a human voice. Weinberger in 2005: “If companies allow their employees to blog, [they] have the opportunity of engaging their customer in the sort of genuine conversations that build real customer loyalty.)

Shell’s lack of control over the forum is precisely the equivalent to the depth of its real commitment, according to Weinberger. And that is exactly where things went wrong eventually. In 2005 the intended internet interface for open debate had withered away. It was nothing more than a Shell themed blog site dominated by three or four regular contributors, who together accounted for over 70% of all postings on the general forum. One of them was Alfred Donovan a former-Shell employee who described ‘the slow death of the Royal Dutch Shell ‘Tell Shell’ Internet Discussion Forum’ on his website ShellNews.net. The discussion forum was no longer accessible on the individual country websites, he found out, and the ‘Tell Shell’ feature on the Shell USA website had returned on solely email correspondence. Donovan showed that contributions to the forums were being censored or taken away completely ‘for legal reasons.’

Shortly after this article was published in the influential on line magazine Mondaq in November 2005, the company took the Tell Shell Forums off line. Today the links to the forums are hard to find , and the Tell Shell Forum website still explains that the site is being redesigned. We’ll wait and see.

My take on this.

The original forums at the Shell website provided a perfect example of the double edged sword of company-induced dialogue with its critics. Any form of dialogue within a polarised situation of political conflict is bound to include an intelligence component. This is either aimed at monitoring the opposition and gather information about them, or the dialogue itself could be part of a counterstrategy to tackle the opposition.

However genuine the forums may have been as steps towards Shell’s new attitude, they remain instruments of PR as long as the company is not showing convincing proof of change. Shell’s promises for openness and transparency seem to have been forgotten in the more recent reserve reporting scandals. Attention shifted away from the continuing problems with human rights and the environment, and the forum indeed died a slow death. By consequence, the company also lost a convenient option to monitor its audiences, and had to rely on other sources for intelligence on those who form a potential threat for Shell. More on that later…

May, S. (1998, June) Personal communication – email exchange
– Weinberger, D. (2002, April. ) “Building effective Custumer Relationships: Dirty Laundry on the Web”, Darwin Magazine.

– Weinberger, D. (2005, 21 April) cited in “Building Customer Relationships with Blogs.”

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