"Accidents are as inevitable as breath. There is only one way to fully avoid accidents, and that is to die. When you are dead, no accidents." -- Timur Grigoluk, Polar Partners.
The art of public relations is difficult, especially when you’re in the business of Arctic oil drilling. On one hand you have an almost unlimited amount of money to spend, but on the other you’re trying to persuade people that it’s perfectly sensible to do something that my six-year-old nephew describes as ‘very silly’.
Royal Dutch Shell and Russian energy giant Gazprom have very different approaches to public relations but are now working together to pump oil from the Arctic as the ice melts. That’s why we worked with the Yes Lab to create a new brand for the two companies, the Polar Partnership, commemorated by the gift of a polar bear to the Amsterdam zoo.
Before I explain the Amsterdam PR circus in more detail, let’s look at the two companies themselves.
The Russian state owns over 50 percent of oil and gas giant Gazprom, and uses it to finance domestic and international policy. It’s been called Putin’s personal piggybank, and has been instrumental in his assertion of state power. In November 2011, the Kolskaya rig sank in remote Russian seas while under contract to a Gazprom subsidiary, killing 53 workers. Gazprom escaped any responsibility.
Last year Shell failed to drill a single well in the Alaskan Arctic, following a catalogue of dangerous blunders that led the US government to declare the company ‘screwed up’. It is now hoping to exploit the lax regulations that exist in Russia, where safety requirements are far weaker. In return, Gazprom receives the PR know-how and technical expertise that Shell has developed after years of spills and cover-ups in Nigeria and around the world.
To explain these facts, we created fiction. This week, Polar Partners launched a PR campaign involving an apparently drugged polar bear, a Russian child superstar, and a colorful marching band, packed onto a barge which wound through Amsterdam's canals to the city zoo. There, visitors and staff watched Gazprom and Shell reps present the bear to Amsterdam as a gift between friendly nations — before being forcibly removed by zoo security and city police.
A flurry of public speculation rippled through Dutch TV and online media: What could it mean? Who could have done this? Has Shell gone mad?
Shortly thereafter, a companion website appeared at Polar-Partners.com, just in time for Twitter to come alive with revelations that "Gazprom" was using Moby's most famous song in the PR event's publicity video. Pamela Anderson, Dawn Olivieri, Adam McKay, Occupy Wall Street, and various other celebs joined in the fracas, cumulatively reaching millions of fans.
Making things weirder, New Zealand's Auckland Zoo felt compelled to assert that it would not be receiving a bear through Gazprom's Adopt-a-Bear program. And when grainy bear cruelty photos popped up, the whole thing began to gain its own weird momentum.
Both of these companies spend millions distracting the public from the ugly side of their business — the spills, the human rights abuses, the climate pollution. In fact, they’d probably both prefer it if their new partnership was completely ignored. We’re making sure it isn’t.
The real PR stunt is persuading the world that they aren’t responsible for the collapse of our ecosystems, and that they can be trusted to drill safely in the Arctic. That’s why it matters that 3.5 million people - including the Yes Lab - have joined the Save the Arctic movement, ready to bust the hoax.