Dirty Laundry on the Web

Von David Weinberger

How far does Shell go in allowing open discussion? Consider thismessage:

"I am Fortune Adogbeji Fashe, currently a permanent resident in theU.S. Last year I got a message from home about the death of my father,Chief James Fashe. He was on retirement in Evwreni in Delta State,where you have one of your flow stations. He was killed and his houserazed, I learnt as a result of Shell's activities in the community. Ihave read Shell's cheap denial and lame excuses for the atrocitiesthe[y] carry out in Nigeria. But I did not expect it would come tothis. I just want to know, what is Shell's side of the story on this,and what is Shell doing about it?"

Oddly, I trust Shell more after reading this posting than I didbefore, even though no one had responded to the message at press time.By allowing it to remain on its website, Shell tacitly makes good onthe claims in The Shell Report that the company is truly interested inlistening to all those who criticize it.

The openness of the forums is matched by the openness of the groupresponsible for maintaining them. The forums grew out of a desire tomake The Shell Report interactive--the rip-out reply cards bound intothe original paper version just weren't engendering the sort ofcustomer interaction Shell wanted. Now anyone in Wade's group canreply to any message. Because people expect a quick response on theWeb, says Wade, "the formalities of approval are kept to a minimum."Respondents don't have to consult a central registry of officialpositions because, according to Wade, Shell has done such a good jobof letting its people know what its policies are. "It's part of theprocess of running the company," he says.

Indeed, Wade thinks the forums themselves are consistent with Shell'sattitude toward its global responsibilities. "If you look at how werun our major projects, like the Athabasca Oil Sands Project, you cansee the lengths to which we go to have local engagement with thecommunities to plan what we should do and how we should do it." IsAthabasca really a model of openness and engagement? I don't know, butI know that Wade believes it is. The forums exude a sense ofconfidence in Shell's vision and execution that the typical oil slickof marketing on most corporate websites simply cannotinstill.

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