The Brent Spar Case
On February 16, 1995, the British government granted the Shell-UK company authority to sink an oil platform (the Brent Spar) no longer being used off the coast of Scotland. Taking preparation times into account, the sinking was scheduled for the month of June. Several weeks prior to the scheduled date, the international environmentalist organization Greenpeace protested the risk that such sinking posed, affirming that the platform contained 5,000 tons of oil – a dangerous quantity for the marine ecosystem. The English company immediately denied such accusation, in this way dismissing also the idea of an attack against the environment: nearly all the oil contained in the platform had already been transferred to a tanker when the platform was decommissioned in 1991. In reality, only 130 tons of oil remained inside the platform, with uncertain consequences to the ecosystem. Various scientists favorable to the sinking of the platform were then engaged by the British government for the purpose of legitimizing the logic advanced by the Shell Group. Prime Minister John Major announced his position in favor of sinking, claiming that this would be the safest and most economical solution.
Greenpeace launched its media attack beginning with its claims that the scientists engaged by the government were hardly impartial, in light of the absence of any guarantees for the protection of the marine environment and the subjectivity of their opinions. In the meantime, the environmentalist organization had mobilized its German office in Hamburg and Herald Zindler, the head of its action service, who would organize the assault and boarding of the platform together with around 20 militants. The filming of the event was shown around the world. Greenpeace announced its intent to stay aboard the platform until Shell and the British government gave in to its demands. The environmentalist organization also demanded that the platform – and all other platforms destined for dismantling – be brought to land and disassembled for the recycling of composite materials.
During the same period, Greenpeace published a report prepared by a number of independent scientists entitled ”No grounds for dumping: the decommissioning and abandonment of offshore oil and gas platforms” that demonstrated the risks posed by the sinking of the Brent Spar platform due to the fact that “the platform still contained 100 tons of toxic sludge (composed of bio-accumulative chemical products including arsenic, cadmium, PCB, and lead) in addition to 30 tons of radioactive deposits derived from drilling and storage operations in oilfields.”. This report applied the above-mentioned measures to a total of another 416 platforms installed in the North Sea, in such way assessing the pollution in this area at 67,000 tons of stainless steel, 700 tons of lead, 8 tons of PCB, and 1,200 tons of radioactive waste…
Coverage of the conflict in the mass media was intensified by an appeal for European nations to boycott Shell service stations. Protests rapidly reached an unexpected dimension and their success was greatest in Germany, where all the socio-economic categories supported the call, and precisely: the obstetricians’ association, the Kunert company (a leader in the production of hosiery), trade unions, and Protestant churches. By mid-June, Shell’s German subsidiary reported losses to the order of 35 million French francs daily. The fourth-largest subsidiary of the Anglo-Dutch petroleum products group controlled 12% of the German service station market and accounted for no less than 10% of the group’s total sales and therefore 10% of its profit. Obliged to negotiate, with the greatest of discretion, the Shell German subsidiary’s General Manager Peter Duncan organized a meeting with Greenpeace Germany Director Thilo Bode. The environmentalist movement capitalized on Europe’s contradictions stemming from England’s particular position in the European Community and the way it was perceived by other nations. The amplitude of reactions in Germany was such that Chancellor Helmut Kohl asked John Major to refrain from sinking the platform during the G7 Summit in Halifax (Canada). On June 20, 1995, the Anglo-Dutch company officially announced that it had abandoned the idea of sinking the Brent Spar platform, which was towed to Norway and moored in a fjord. Shell was required to disburse 230 million francs for the operation. Greenpeace had won.
On the strength of this victory against the world’s second largest industrial group at the time, Greenpeace felt invincible and announced to the entire world that its next campaign would by the Moruroa Atoll following news of the President of the French Republic’s intention to conduct a series of nuclear tests there. Applying the principle of monitoring media activity without definitively achieving success, Greenpeace continued its information work. After so many shields had been raised in defense of the environment, Shell’s lawyers engaged the Norwegian Det Norske Veritas Foundation to verify all the scientific data on the Brent Spar platform. Thirty-three specialists were asked to submit their individual reports on October 18. All were unanimous in stating that sinking the platform posed no risk. The association learned of the opinions of the specialists engaged by Shell (and in particular its initial conclusions and probable form of disclosure) and realized that it would soon be placed with its back against the wall by the irrefutable logic advanced in the Foundation’s report. Fearing the strong media attention that could be turned against it, the environmental organization based in the Netherlands decided to stage a pre-emptive counter-attack, a technique that consists in applying a principle developed by Sun Tzu: cut the grass beneath your adversary’s feet. In the case at hand, this meant countering the arguments of the Veritas Foundation before such arguments could be used. The public disclosure of the report would have certainly worked as a media bomb with great detrimental effect to Greenpeace at a moment in which its credibility was at stake in the more important action regarding French nuclear tests.
Contrary to the allegations made, the Brent Spar did not contain toxic sludge or radioactive waste in its central duct. The platform had been effectively nearly empty since it was decommissioned in 1991. By taking the initiative, Greenpeace defused the bomb and successfully dodged the accusations of manipulation, disinformation, intellectual dishonesty, and scientific incompetence, and in this way damage to its image was only slight. The procedure is simple and effective: the Greenpeace-UK Director Lord Peter Melchett sent Shell General Manager Christopher Fay a letter of confession in which he admitted having erred in assessing the risk: “I am very sorry. Our calculations were inexact […]. Please accept my apologies for this mistake. [The samples were taken] in the piping that led to the platform’s tanks and not in the tanks themselves…”.
The international press, irked at having been manipulated in this way, inveighed against the environmentalist organization without result, which was in the eyes of the press guilty of having mystified public opinion by using perfectly orchestrated disinformation. Yves Lenoir, a former member of the French committee, denounced the methods used: “This is a typical example of Greenpeace methods that completely invent a scandal without any facts at all.”
Mobile warfare is the fulcrum of Greenpeace strategy. In his military writings, Mao Zedong defined the “strategic problems of revolutionary war”. One of the most important strategic problems that must be solved regards the relationship between the positional warfare and the mobile warfare. The former must “fight against fixed operation lines and the positional warfare using mobile operation lines and mobile warfare”, the latter must be compatible with the following principle: “battle against the strategy that aims to strike with two fists in two directions at the same time and instead favor the strategy that aims to strike with just one fist in only one direction at any given moment.”
Knowing how to manage transparency: utilizing this register, on that occasion Greenpeace neutralized the logic of dishonest obstinacy and presented itself as an untarnished hero motivated solely by its constructive objectivity. The principle of transparency is one of counter-information’s essential components.
Turning communication into an offensive weapon: the apology letter addressed to Christopher Fay was publically disclosed. This maneuver of no little interest served the objective of publicizing the environmentalist organization’s behavior to public opinion, in particular, to its sympathizers and donators. Greenpeace received involuntary assistance in this from Shell, whose main objective was to amplify the environmentalist association’s failure. The principle of this publicity initiative applied by Greenpeace permitted its message to be oriented in the desired direction and to limit the margins for the adversary’s criticism. For this reason, despite the communication offensive against Greenpeace launched by Shell-UK, Shell-France, and John Major, the perception of its failure in the eyes of public opinion was mitigated by the perception of its sincerity.
Capitalizing on your adversary’s contradictions: acceptance of one’s errors can be immediately placed in better perspective by bringing theirs to light. Parallel to its confession “Greenpeace recalled that some scientists had asked themselves about shortcomings in the information disclosed by Shell”, while also noting the fact that whereas some scientists believed sinking the platform to be more ecological than dismantling it, others were less convinced. Highlighting these contradictions in the scientists’ reasoning made the possibility of making an error in good faith more believable, in this way legitimizing the error made by Greenpeace.
On one hand, every mistake offers the chance for a new learning experience. The mistake made by Greenpeace allowed Shell to raise a related problem: the management of oil and gas platforms no longer utilizable. The attack that was so detrimental to British interests provided the occasion for a constructive contribution to the scientific debate. On the other hand, this war of information between Greenpeace and Shell brought the latter to a contradiction: continuing to harshly attack Greenpeace and exploit the defeat of its science would appear an unjustified exaggeration, especially in light of the latter’s confession. Crushing the environmentalist organization made it impossible for Shell to regain its previous media status. The environmentalist organization’s media skills suggested that it would be better for Shell to have it as an ally than an enemy, and for this reason Shell officially invited Greenpeace to take active part in its “Offshore Europe 1995” conference dedicated to environmental protection.
In order to ensure adequate media coverage for its Brent Spar operation, Greenpeace spent 350,000 pounds sterling to rent satellite communication lines – twice the amount the BBC paid to cover the event. Its days of being a dilettante were long over.
By adopting a decidedly defensive strategy that continuously confirmed the complete reliability of the sinking operation, Shell expended great energy and obtained only mediocre results, and was never really able to counter the attack of which it was a victim. This fatal outcome for the oil company originated in the falsification of its perception of the theaters of action. Whereas Shell communicated on the basis of tangible, objective reasoning and scientific facts, Greenpeace based its fight on subjective, subversive, pseudoscientific terrain and the enlargement of contradictions. This forced Shell to add arguments of more self-justificatory nature based on objectivity. If the Anglo-Dutch group had mastered the art of polemic and the offensive techniques of information warfare, the final verdict would have undoubtedly been different.
“These new forms of warfare are no less radical than the previous ones, and oblige those under attack the economic world, the protagonists of civil society to adopt new strategies. In particular, it is fundamentally important to prevent accusatory actions whose effects are irremediable because they are media effects: the pathetic apologies made by Greenpeace will not remedy the injury done to Shell in any way.”.
For most organizations, traditional crisis management and institutional communication models have shown their limits when faced with radicalization and the massive use of new communication technologies. A number of elements of precise and effective response can be derived from the concept of counter-information, which may be defined as the combination of communication actions that thanks to pertinent and verifiable information permits to attenuate, invalidate or turn back an information attack against the attacker. Counter-information differs from the disinformation employed by special services but responds to constraints and requires the same quality as the original information attack, and precisely: preliminary intelligence, mastery of psychological and psycho-sociological mechanisms, skillfulness in the management of communication techniques and principles (including advertising), and close contacts with the mass media, etc. Hence every prevention of an insidious open information attack requires knowledge and mastery of the offensive techniques of information warfare. The criteria of effectiveness of counter-information are as follows:
– in order to be credible, counter-information must make an effort to channel open and well-argued information, verifiable and not manipulated information;
– where, when, how, and to which extent must information be employed? Counter-information is a question of information strategy and management;
– the adversary’s contradictions and weaknesses must be systematically attacked;
– the argument in support of attack is all the more incisive when the evidence of the facts presented can be ascertained;
– communication is linked to the exemplarity of demonstration and the skillful use of spontaneous resonance elements.
The media defeat suffered by Shell Group demonstrates, above all, the limits of a discourse and logic based exclusively on a technical validation of the issues at hand, while also suggesting that counter-information is the only response that permits the mitigation or even the reversal of an embarrassing and untenable situation.
Hostage to its own certainties, Shell Group attempted to wage the battle on apparently favorable ground. Remaining in a strong/weak relationship without taking the initiative, the Anglo-Dutch company was forced to develop a defensive strategy. The oil company’s reaction based on mechanisms of direct conflict provided inadequate response to the powers of persuasion of the environmental protection organization that had acquired mastery in the art of dialectics and rhetoric in the meantime. Despite its initially restricted margin of maneuver, Greenpeace was able to construct global reasoning that publicized the issue with the use of subversive techniques. Its sensational victory is exemplary from various points of view. First and foremost, it demonstrates that no international company may deem itself safe from the risk of substantial destabilization by even an organization with limited means. Many structures today are capable of conducting effective communication campaigns and selecting the resonance amplifiers most appropriate for the exertion of pressure on political institutions. No multinational appears to be dedicating enough attention to these new risks, and some have been victims of similar experiences, such as the French oil company ELF, which was obliged to pull out of an important business project in Chad.