The Dangers of Co-optation with Corporations

Over 2,000 Ogoni, including their leader, Ken Saro-Wiwa have died since they started their non-violent campaign against Shell. Many Ogoni are still imprisoned today. Their only crime was to campaign against the ecological destruction of their homeland by Shell and ask for a greater share of the oil wealth that had been drilled from under their land.

What have the Ogoni got to do with corporate PR, you might ask? Right from the start of the Nigerian conflict, Shell was more interested in preserving its image than protecting the environment or listening to the grievances of the peoples of the Niger Delta. The company complained that it suffered from a communication problem, rather than a real one. In the weeks after Ken Saro-Wiwa was executed, Shell, which faced a public corporate crisis, tried to spin its way out of trouble, spending millions of dollars justifying its continuing operations in Nigeria.

In the company's adverts and press releases, the Ogoni were portrayed as violent, as 'separatists, as sappateurs, while Shell systematically lied to the world over its links with the military regime. 'How the truth was manipulated in Nigeria is just one small example of corporate public relations industry that spends 35 billion dollars a year protecting business interests world-wide. 'What is PR? It is the secretive art of subtle manipulation, whose point, in the words of one Mobil executive "is getting people to behave the way you hope they will behave by persuading them that it is ultimately in their interest to do so".

We should not underestimate the power of corporate PR - Indeed some people argue that corporate propaganda threatens democracy itself. As Australian scholar Alex Carey said: "The twentieth century has been characterized by three developments of great political importance; the growth of democracy, the growth of corporate power and the growth of corporate propaganda as a means of protecting corporate power against democracy."

Lets look at some specific examples of corporate PR at work, and what we can learn from them. In 1995, the year Saro-Wiwa was murdered, Shell received a prestigious Award from the then Chancellor, Ken Clarke for its range of corporate videos, one of which was on climate change. Being the largest global oil company in the world, Shell should be worried about climate change. It is now an established fact that we are changing the world's climate. The burning of fossil fuels is largely to blame. For the last forty years, Shell and the other fossil fuel companies have adopted a dinosaur mentality towards climate change. Instead of joining the debate constructively, they set out to destroy it. Essentially the oil industry responded with what we call the 3-D PR Strategy:

Deny, delay, dominate. Deny there is a problem with your product. Delay effective action. Dominate the international agenda and the marketplace in the search for alternatives.

The industry has treated climate change as a PR problem - it has funded so-called independent scientists and formed green-sounding front groups, such as the Global Climate Coalition. The GCC, which was set up in the late eighties was formed to scupper the UN Climate negotiations. In the run up to the Kyoto meeting last December, the GCC spent $60 million dollars trying to persuade the public that they were not to blame and justify a business as usual future - even though that future jeopardizes the long-term viability of life on earth. The use of climate front groups, such as the Global Climate Coalition is just one of the many PR techniques companies are using to counter the environmental movement.

The techniques are very simple: On the one hand to co-opt the environmental debate and on the other to demonize and marginalize the environmental movement. Co-option can take many forms; Companies have spent billions adopting the language of the environmental movement, or greenwashing their products: Motor vehicles, the fastest growing source of pollution on the planet, have become "environmentally-friendly". Aerosols are "ozone friendly", washing powders are phosphate free, even when most had no phosphate in them anyway, aluminium cans and paper bags are not recycled but also recyclable. Sustainable development has become one of the most co-opted and corrupted corporate terms used today. As well as changing their language, companies have changed their tactics - We must understand that for business, establishing links with environmental, human rights, development and Indigenous groups and having dialogue with the opposition is a simple PR technique. I cannot stress this enough. Dialogue is the most important PR tactic that companies are using to overcome objections to their operations. It is a typical divide and rule tactic. One PR guru has outlined a three step divide and conquer strategy on how corporations can defeat public interest activists who apparently fall into four distinct categories: "radicals", "opportunists", "idealists" and "realists". The goal is to isolate the radicals, "cultivate" the idealists and "educate" them into becoming realists, then co-opt the realists into agreeing with industry'.

To this end, Shell has pioneered a sophisticated "stakeholder" process, which it hopes will become a blue-print for industry to use elsewhere. Having learnt from its operations in Nigeria and the Brent Spar fiasco, the company is trying a different tract in Peru, where it has been exploring for oil in some of the most culturally and ecologically sensitive rainforest left on the globe, but labels it "model sustainable development". In an unprecedented move, the company held a series of workshops in Lima, Washington and London in December 1997 and June 1998 to which some 90 interested groups or "stakeholders" in its Peruvian Camisea project were invited. Not up for discussion was whether the project should go ahead, but how it should go ahead. Meanwhile, the whole process has divided different groups on whether to take part in the Shell- initiative.

We can also learn from advice companies like Shell are receiving from security firms, such as Control Risks, based in London. In a lecture last autumn, John Bray, Head of Research at Control Risks, advised the oil industry how to counter pressure groups, recommending that:

* It is no longer acceptable practice purely to operate to national environmental and social laws.
* Companies must operate and be seen to be operating to best practice world-wide, to a uniform set of international standards.
* Many local groups are linked to international pressure groups in the US and Europe.

Companies must try to undermine those links by:

* Increasing dialogue with stakeholders. The bottom line, say Control Risks, is that if you dialogue with people, then you win. If you meet a group that will not compromise, then you have a problem. One recent classic example of this is the Uwa from Colombia who refused to back-track against oil development and even threatened suicide if Occidental and Shell drilled on their land. It was the companies who backed down.

What is interesting about what Control Risks are saying is that by advocating companies operating to global best practice, they are putting forward the same argument that some mainstream environmental and development NGOs are. This is exactly what the companies 'want - a harmonization of standards and respectability world-wide, while they carry on their own operations, largely on a business as usual scenario.

The most dangerous document is Shell's "Profits and Principles: Does there have to be a Choice". "We care what you think about us, it says in hand-writing" on the inside cover, whilst also mentioning dialogue. Shell, by the way are also spending $30 million changing their image.

Despite the great green rhetoric, fundamental differences exist between Shell's vision and our vision for the future. Take the issue of globalization. It says in the Profits and Principles book that "Shell strongly supports globalization for a way to ensure greater prosperity for all".

Many people now realize that the issue of globalization is becoming the most important ecological, economic and social issue of our time. Globalization represents a race to the bottom for the economy, for the environment and for equity. It represents the age of insecurity for the likes of you and me. To Shell it represents a business as usual future.

What is our vision for the future? We cannot just highlight the problems, we also have to start working on solutions. Do we accept Shell's and Monsanto's vision of a globalized world dominated by Microsoft and Mcdonald's and other unaccountable corporations, who see no limits to growth or limits on manipulation of life. In essence, do we believe that TNCs are part of the solution or problem?

You should ask the Ogoni 19 who were arrested for campaigning against Shell, who were arrested by Shell's own Nigerian Police, and who have languished in jail for four years despite Shell's newly found commitment to human rights, what they think. You should ask the Ogoni 19 whether they believe Shell to be part of the problem or solution. I think you would find that they believe there is a difference between principle and profit.