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 stung to the point of madness. Or who died.
(I believe victims each received around £1,000, 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. [Carter-Ruck has now removed this content from its website]
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.
- had Trafigura not used a super-injunction, we might never have heard this story
– 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.
(The original links from this article have now largely been removed, I feel it only fair to note that Trafigura now boasts a foundation. )
First appeared in a separate blog, October 13, 2009
A surge of outrage helped restore reason to British politics today. I am grateful – and proud – to live in a country where our views have been taken into account. Trying to prevent the media from printing information about a question being tabled in Parliament was reprehensible. Our anger should be directed at the court that allowed that one to happen.
I felt a little note by way of postscript was in order.
Firstly, there’s a great piece on RNW about the full story.
There is one other party to whom very little allusion has been made: Compagnie Tommy, a licensed independent contractor (on the Ivory Coast).
The following is a statement made in May: statement by Trafigura.
Apparently Trafigura is also taking action against them. Trafigura describes them as a reputable company ( but at the time of the incident, they had only been registered for a month). You can click here to take the contractor license test to become a contractor and do your own work. [content has been removed from website]
There are all kinds of ifs, whats and maybes, of course, because if they had been contracted to dispose of one chemical, but were delivered something else, the problem goes back to within and higher up the chain. But if they were to blame for the spill, Trafigura has done little to help itself in PR terms. Passing the buck is never popular, but a full statement wouldn’t have gone amiss.
Trafigura’s PR company, Bell Pottinger, will having a very busy day. I’m sure they’ll open a bottle after work to relax. Lets hope they spare a thought for the nameless people on the Ivory Coast, whilst they’re at it.
It will be interesting to see what Jack Straw’s response will be to the question if/when asked in Parliament.
And the traditional media, which is usually on the end of a good social media pasting on a regular basis, should take heart from the fact that the public stood behind them.
I hope they will have the courage to use social media for a mandate to go ahead and print when our our politicians and legal system are misbehaving in future. And that someone will find the energy to use the attention to improve the lot of the real victims of this accident.
Eco Monday: Trafigura – time to come clean
Claire Thompson, Waves PR
Posted 20 October 2009
This post was drafted for posting yesterday, but a lot of interest was being expressed in the #Likeminds story, so it was held back until today.
An open letter to PR consultancy Bell Pottinger
Dear Bell Pottinger,
We all use petrochemicals, and accept that, however unpleasant, the bi-products of these need disposing of.
However, quite aside of the ethics, all companies, including those like Trafigura, need to regard every part of their operations as having an effect on their PR (public relations).
Your client Trafigura is now a household name in some sectors. Their solicitors, Carter Ruck, have been put into the limelight. Harriet Harman has had her say. The Twitter noise has died down. Has it gone as quickly as it came? Possibly.
The fact that Trafigura’s solicitors apparently tried to prevent the reporting of a Parliamentary question shows just what lengths they will stretch to in order to prevent everyone examining their activities. I can’t imagine the financial cost, leave alone the reputational one.
Yet your client, currently the scourge of social media circles, is now uniquely placed to become the hero of the piece, and you are uniquely placed to show just how good PR CAN be.
I am sure that the fact they were prepared to accept cheap, illegal disposal of bi-products will have attracted more custom from certain corners. More reputable customers may be more circumspect before throwing in their lot with a company now so apparently sullied.
In your shoes, I would offer your client, Trafigura, a ten step plan:
To publicly apologise for this incident and clearly state their position going forwards/actions planned from here (particularly if, as they claim, the media has misreported the incident. What is there to prevent the company from stating their side of the case on-line?) Note: since posting this, I found this link posted in the responses to a guardian article. This is absolutely unforgiveable from a PR perspective. assuming this is a fairly stated case. To post it in an unsearchable format where bloggers and concerned individuals find it in this day and age defies basic common sense. I was amongst those who actively searched for the other side of the story.)
To commission an immediate internal investigation to see how and why this illegal dumping (even if by suppliers) happened, and how it could be prevented in future.
To urge the legal team, Carter Ruck, which has reputation in media circles, to involve the PR team before undertaking legal actions which may have huge implications for their PR and IR practises, particularly in a socially driven world.
To undertake a full CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) audit, aligning their responsibilities to customers, suppliers, the wider community and the environment. If they need to be persuaded, use their own language: good corporate governance is high on the agenda of most corporate investors. The PR implications of everything they do in a social media age has to be considered a serious part of their ‘risk management’.
To clean up the mess. Quickly. It may well have been the responsibility of a third party but Trafigura can afford argue about costs later. This is a matter of life and death. If they cannot see the human imperative for resolving this, they cannot expect environmental campaigners to ease the pressure. Trying to silence the media means that their activities will be under constant scrutiny and they will be under far more spotlight than most.
To hold a well planned, well briefed internal conference, inviting customers, suppliers, NGOs, politicians and thinkers to together try and address some of the issues that they face as a company operating in a complex and necessary market: this open exchange might well result in huge mandate for change, at least partially acceptable to all, re-establishing some lost trust.
The government of the Ivory Coast allowed the waste disposal. Work with them and NGOs to strengthen their ability to educate and help local disposal companies. This has a strong benefit to them as an organisation. It would take very little effort to introduce an approved supplier scheme with high standards. Local companies should be falling over themselves to sign up. Whilst achieving the moral objective of preventing accidents, it would offer the company an opportunity to adopt a leadership position for good practise, appealing to their business partners.
Alternatively/also, establish a health and education foundation, using their own charity resources, in the region affected by the dumping, to help mitigate the effects of their actions. Handled with advice from local NGOs, Trafigura might even find that it has a win-win, creating a pool of skilled, educated people trained to undertake waste disposal safely.
To set up a foundation for research into less noxious ways of waste disposal.
To invite the media (of all types) to join them on their journey towards cleaning up their act. They are now a well know name, and now of unique interest. This multi-faceted ‘clean up’ of their business would offer a far greater insight in the way that business works and the complexities of the decisions that have to be made than any Dragons Den or Apprentice ever could, and put a human face on what is currently a faceless wrongdoer.
I am sure that you understand your clients market far better than I do. I am certain that you are already considering some of this. I would hope that you will be considering the implications of your own association with Trafigura should it fail to clean up its act.
You both have the opportunity for you to demonstrate to the world that even the messiest of businesses can come clean, and to show how a new era of open dialogue and community engagement can benefit all parties. Ethics and business can and should sit at the same table in a way that benefits everyone.