CHAPTER 10 - OUR CAMPAIGN AGAINST SHELL
Events took another unexpected turn when, because of the growing publicity resulting from the series of Writs we had issued against Shell, we were contacted by a number of Shell UK gasoline station operators. Some volunteered information about their experience of Shell's business practices. We wondered how best to use this development to our advantage. We knew full well that we would be at a huge disadvantage in continuing the litigation in view of the Security for Costs application, which had been granted. The time given for paying money into Court was fast running out.
Shell could afford to pay for the best lawyers and even if a trial verdict went against them, could appeal against the decision. Money would be no object in pursuit of draining our meagre resources week by week, month by month, until we had to give up the fight - hence the very real significance of their threat to make the litigation “drawn out and difficult”. We all knew exactly what the threat meant. We had to find a way to put pressure on Shell.
We therefore decided to open an entirely new battlefront separate from the litigation. My son and I founded the Shell Corporate Conscience Pressure Group. The inspiration for the name of the pressure group arose from an article in the September 1994 issue of the Shell "Chairman's Bulletin" sent to Shell shareholders, which claimed a culture of "corporate conscience" at Shell. John and I agreed that I would be the Chairman of the pressure group. Our membership included Shell suppliers, fellow Shell shareholders and Shell retailers – amazingly nearly 15% of Shell UK retailers joined the pressure group. Several hundred Shell retailers participated in our “business ethic” surveys about Shell. We published the results in successive monthly whole page notices in the forecourt trade press. All responses were opened under the supervision of an independent solicitor who provided an Affidavit verifying the results, which were devastatingly bad for Shell.
89% of respondents said that they would not recommend any petrol retailer considering a brand change to switch to Shell.
75% of the Shell stations that participated were of the opinion that Shell was unethical, incompetent, and greedy.
Shell never did take up our challenge to commission and publish the results of independent research, using precisely the same questions and offering respondents GUARANTEED anonymity.
We also received many letters from Shell stations complaining bitterly about the business practices of Shell. Here is a selection of quotes from some of the letters: -
“Extremely bad company”
“I believe the current regime is totally immoral”
“We have serious concerns about Shell’s ethical conduct”.
“The fickle nature and lack of honour within our negotiations were a shock to ourselves coming from a large company… We would hope this letter may help you and serve as a warning to others contemplating any form of activity with this company”.
“You are not alone in being steamrollered by this company”.
It is true to say that we did of necessity use the pressure group to our personal advantage but on the other hand, John and I set it up, run it on a day-to-day basis and funded all of the activities. We neither sought nor received a penny from anyone else.
John and I knew that certain people at Shell UK were absolutely incensed at our initiative and we wondered how they would hit back. We soon got the answer. On 17th March 1995, Shell UK circulated to the media a press statement headed: “DON MARKETING LIMITED –V- SHELL UK LIMITED. Its ferocious content shows just how livid Shell UK was about our legal claims and our campaigning activity.
This is what it said: -
During the past few months Mr John Donovan, the Managing Director of Don Marketing Limited, and his father, Mr Alfred Donovan, have conducted a publicity campaign connected with legal actions which Don Marketing has initiated against Shell U.K. Limited. Shell believes the courts are the proper forum for a commercial dispute of this kind, and wishes to see matters resolved there. However, due to the growing number of untrue and often offensive allegations being made about Shell in the campaign, the company feels it is appropriate to comment more fully.
Shell U.K. Limited is defending legal actions which allege that Shell UK wrongfully used two forecourt promotions – ‘Nintendo’ and ‘Now Showing’ – developed by Don Marketing without its consent. The allegation is untrue. Don Marketing has no case and the legal actions are being strenuously defended. Shell is always anxious to resolve disputes amicably where possible but in this case sees no alternative but to allow the litigation to take its course.
Mr Donovan appears to have little faith in his company’s claims. Since initiating legal proceedings he and his father have adopted the unusual course of mounting a publicity campaign to ventilate allegations against Shell and members of its staff. Mr Donovan’s father has recently founded what he calls a ‘Shell Corporate Conscience Pressure Group’ to promote this campaign.
Mr Donovan and his father have written to the directors of Shell UK and its parent companies stating that they plan to outline the allegations against Shell and its staff to the company’s shareholders, the President of the Board of Trade, a number of publications and to ‘Internet’ users. They have also claimed that they intend to write to media and shareholders calling for the resignation of senior Shell managers, allege that they plan to write a book, have sent publicity material to several Shell locations in the UK and have attempted to assemble negative views of Shell from some retailers. Shell believes these actions are an attempt to sully Shell’s reputation with sensationalist allegations, in the hope that the company may be coerced into settling false claims.
Don Marketing and the so called pressure group have repeatedly attempted to goad Shell into issuing proceedings against them for what they are doing. Shell has to date declined to do so. Shell believes that the invitation to take legal action has been made merely to generate publicity and to substantiate Mr Donovan’s false assertion that Shell is a large company oppressing a small trader. Shell believes that any libel proceedings it brought would be likely to succeed. However, it doubts that Don Marketing and the so called pressure group would have the funds to pay Shell’s costs and the compensation it would be awarded.
Shell would be in breach of its obligations to shareholders if it initiated legal actions, failed to defend itself, or participated in actions in which it would lose money even if successful. Shell will therefore be applying to the court for Security for Costs in the existing legal actions brought by Don Marketing, in order to ensure that Don Marketing can pay Shell’s legal expenses in the event – which Shell believes likely – that Don Marketing’s claims will fail in court.
Shell UK Media Relations, March 17, 1995
We were later given the impression by Shell Legal Director, Richard Wiseman, that the rabid missive with its allegations of “false claims” was personally authored by the then Chairman and Chief Executive of Shell UK Ltd, Dr Chris Fay and circulated to the media despite internal legal advice not to do so. The one thing that Shell had not anticipated is that their Press Release would provide a further avenue whereby we could turn the situation to our advantage. On 11th April 1995, I personally issued a High Court Writ for libel against Shell UK.
Now things really started to heat up - on 10th May 1995, my son and I, together with other members of the pressure group, including a delegation of Shell retailers, staged protests at Shell-Mex House and the Shell Centre in London. We advised Shell and the Police in advance and the protests were orderly and good-humoured even though our members were very upset at their treatment by Shell. We received support and encouragement from many Shell employees who were entering or leaving the buildings. Many had recently received redundancy notices because Shell was in the throes of a cost cutting exercise. Shell had arranged for a photographer to take photographs of the protestors. This was presumably designed to intimidate – if so it did not succeed.
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