Waves PR: October 13, 2009
The blogosphere is alive with it. The attempts of a firm of solicitors (Carter Ruck) to gag the Guardian are backfiring. The hashtag #trafigura (and those related) is unlikely to disappear from Twitter screens today, and a number of people have more than egg on their faces.
Yesterday, the Guardian reported that it had been prevented from reporting on Parliament.
In normal circumstances, everyday folk don’t much care about the questions being tabled in Parliament. We have become apathetic – and apathy is always caused by the feeling that nothing we do will make any difference.
But the Internet, fueled by social media networks, is exposing a huge PR failure on the part of Trafigura’s solicitor’s, Carter-Ruck, which has sought to prevent the Guardian from printing a story. “The only fact the Guardian can report is that the case involves the London solicitors Carter-Ruck, who specialise in suing the media for clients, who include individuals or global corporations.”
(Apparently the company used to use a firm of solicitors called Waterson & Hicks.)
It seems that this is the Parliamentary question they have been banned from reporting:
Paul Farrelly (Newcastle-under-Lyme): To ask the Secretary of State for Justice, what assessment he has made of the effectiveness of legislation to protect (a) whistleblowers and (b) press freedom following the injunctions obtained in the High Court by (i) Barclays and Freshfields solicitors on 19 March 2009 on the publication of internal Barclays reports documenting alleged tax avoidance schemes and (ii) Trafigura and Carter-Ruck solicitors on 11 September 2009 on the publication of the Minton report on the alleged dumping of toxic waste in the Ivory Coast, commissioned by Trafigura.
(More on Paul Farrelly here: They Work for You. There’s no mention of this on his Parliamentary site.)
Trafigura is a British oil trader which “trades commodities, such as crude oil, refined products, ores, concentrates and refined metals and provides the ships and facilities to store and transport them.”
Although Trafigura has claimed that it’s done nothing wrong. (Newsnight piece) it dumped toxic waste (caustic soda slops) in an an incident in which over 31 thousand people in Abidjan on the Ivory Coast became entitled to compensation.) That’s 31 thousand people whose airpipes were burning and found it hard to breathe. Whose skin bubbled. Or whose eyes stang to the point of madness. Or who died.
(I believe victims each received around £1000, but don’t quote me on that one. Trafigura has a turnover of 73 billion dollars and is the world’s third largest independent oil trader trading over 1.5 miliion barrels of oil each day, according to its website.)
The Guardian had already reported on the complexities of the case and published documentation. And there was an excellent piece on the BBC’s Newsnight. Which, given that Carter-Ruck was already on it’s tail, was brave.
Anyway, the cat’s out of the bag. We should all have been appalled at the original story. I’ll leave further digging and extra reporting on the current freedom of speech scandal to the professional journalists and political bloggers. The surface that I touched on whilst researching revealed that there’s plenty there, reaching up to high levels in Government. However, in PR terms (where I do feel qualified to comment) there are several lessons that must be re-learned:
- no amount of PR or charity work can cover over bad practise. The best way to avoid a scandal is to ensure that your CSR (corporate social responsibility) is properly aligned with good corporate governance. Don’t let anyone tell you that CSR is about charitable activity. It’s about behaving responsibly and ensuring that this is communicated throughout a business. (I suspect Trafigura will regret having this on it’s website: For Trafigura, strict risk management is not a restriction but a business opportunity.)
- Accidents do happen. Taking reponsibility, saying sorry, making a clean best breast of things, and making proper amends when they do is more sustainable and trust-building than a cover up. Solicitors may know the law, but a good PR consultant will give you a much better handle on the likely reaction.
- And, as if we needed anything more to hammer a point home, this case clearly demonstrates the power of the Internet/social media networks.
There are no winners in this story. The legal firm, Carter-Ruck, won its fight but lost its battle. Trafigura has had a scandal re-hashed: any customers of theirs MUST now be questioning whether they should maintain their association. Governments on two continents have been further tarnished. And we have all been more concerned by the silencing of the press than by the pain to which people in the Ivory Coast were subjected.
Here’s what others have to say on the subject:
The Spectator: “a disgraceful injunction”
Guido Fawkes at order-order: ‘Guardian gagged’
Broadstuff.com: “by trying to bottle up the “official” channels, the outcome will actually be far more damaging to the company. (A bit like the BBC banning the Sex Pistols guaranteed their popularity). ”
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- Settlement Near in Ivory Coast Toxic Dumping Case(nytimes.com)
- Trafigura offers victims £1,000 each(guardian.co.uk)
- Oil waste scandal: The polluter must pay(guardian.co.uk)
- Oil traders knew of Ivory Coast waste danger(news.bbc.co.uk)
- Oil traders knew of Ivorian waste danger(news.bbc.co.uk)
- Victims of ‘toxic waste’ demand proper cleanup(telegraph.co.uk)
- Firm wants to settle Ivory Coast waste case(cnn.com)
- Ivory Coast Toxic-Dump Case Settled, Company Says(nytimes.com)
- Settlement eyed in Ivory Coast toxic waste(cnn.com)
- Newspaper Legally Prevented From Reporting On Government(warrenellis.com)
- UK oil firm’s bid to cover up African pollution disaster(guardian.co.uk)