Magazine article Marketing

Can PR Polish Shell's ID?

Magazine article Marketing

Can PR Polish Shell's ID?

Article excerpt

Shell's appointment of Fishburn Hedges to assess its global communications shows how seriously it regards its reputation and the effect it has on its business, writes Andy Fry

Last week, multinational oil company Shell International took the unusual step of appointing corporate communications consultancy Fishburn Hedges to review how it is perceived by so-called 'stakeholders' around the world (Marketing, July 2). The agency will work on the project alongside ad agency J Walter Thompson.

Despite having no clear idea at this stage as to what Fishburn Hedges and JWT will actually do, Shell has committed a budget of up to $30m ([pounds]18m) in the first year. All a spokesman for Shell will say is that: "This is an early statement of intent designed to reduce speculation about what we are doing. We hope to develop and then implement initiatives which will improve the way we communicate."

Sources indicate that although originally believing that they could advertise their way out of an image problem, Shell executives finally came round to the view that PR would be just as effective.

This is arguably the firmest indication to date of how seriously multinationals are taking the business of reputation management.

Oil on troubled waters

Until recently, it had been widely supposed that Shell was poised to embark on a $200m ([pounds]123m) global advertising campaign through M&C Saatchi. Instead, ad agency J Walter Thompson has been asked to investigate "what role advertising could have in the communication mix".

For Shell, the new venture is the latest stage in a corporate facelift that began three years ago. Scarred by high-profile PR disasters such as the Brent Spar fiasco and the Nigerian government's execution of dissident Ken Saro-Wiwa, Shell began to face up to the prospect of a consumer boycott of its retail products.

It is a concern that has been recognised right across the oil business. The UK Offshore Operators Association (UKOOA) has conducted research which shows that public acceptance of the industry has plummeted from 70% in the 70s to 32% in 1996.

James May, UKOOA's director-general, even went as far as to say: "More alarming is the public's perception of oil companies where they are seen as being arrogant, profit-oriented multinationals - secretive, too cosy with government and not to be trusted." Such observations have already prompted UKOOA to back a [pounds]12m ad campaign intended to "normalise oil".

Eric Nickson, a Shell International spokesman, acknowledges criticisms but sees them as being more a question of style than substance: "Shell started transforming three years ago in order to become a more open and transparent organisation. We felt there was a gap between the outside perception of Shell and how we see ourselves internally."

The process of change was underpinned by ongoing talks with all manner of stakeholders, says Nickson. "We had round-table discussions with non-governmental organisation's (NGOs), youth leaders and church groups in various parts of the world to discover what society expected from companies such as our own."

The most public result of those efforts was a report last April called 'Profits and Principles - does there have to be a choice?'

In a remarkable break with the standard corporate line, Shell promised to give updates on its performance in the fields of sustainable development, human rights, business honesty and care for the environment. …

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