Warrior Princess vs oil giant in activist issue campaign

It was a classic activist ambush.  Stage a media stunt to highlight an issue and draft in a celebrity to guarantee international coverage.  The news media play along every time.

So it was that TV actress Lucy Lawless – a.k.a.  Xena, Warrior Princess – teamed up with Greenpeace at the end of February to storm and occupy an oil exploration ship moored in New Plymouth, New Zealand, to protest about oil-drilling in the Arctic. 

The NZ-born actress and fellow-protesters perched atop a 53-metre drilling derrick on the Shell-chartered vessel Noble Discoverer, where Lawless provided media interviews and a constant stream of twitter messages, while Greenpeace uploaded video clips on YouTube and helpfully provided stories and photographs for the celebrity-hungry media. 

After a typical activist publicity campaign, the story was widely picked up around the world, though nearly always focusing on the Warrior Princess connection. Four days later the police moved in and arrested Lawless and her five companions, triggering another round of global media attention and photo opportunities. Even the revelation that the Greenpeace poster-girl had appeared in a Shell TV commercial in the early 1990s provided the unembarrassed actress with a fresh opportunity to renew the attack on the oil company.

For Shell – famously outwitted by Greenpeace occupying the oil platform Brent Spar in the North Sea in 1995 – it must have seemed like déjà vu, though this time they didn’t bring in water cannon to oust the protesters, but waited for the police to take action.

Greenpeace said the campaign had gone “brilliantly”, claiming that  133,000 people around the world had sent Shell protest emails, supposedly overloading their email system. For their part, Shell in New Zealand seemed  taken by surprise. They kept a low profile, with some pretty bland initial comment, before local Chairman Rob Jager expressed his disappointment that Greenpeace had not taken up the company’s offer to engage in “productive conversation.”

But what else should Shell have done? Celebrity trumps logical issue debate any day.  It might have appeared a passive response, but from the oil company’s perspective it may well have been the best strategy. The real target was Shell International, not Shell New Zealand, and the local boss probably did the right thing by publicly emphasising his willingness to talk . . . despite the fact that such talks with Greenpeace were highly improbable and offered no upside for either party.

Meanwhile, the ship set out for the Arctic one day after the occupation ended, and Lawless and her supporting cast are due to appear in court again next week (20 March). Regardless of the outcome, it will doubtless be used for further promote the Greenpeace campaign  . . .  and Shell will most likely just have to sit back and take it.

Postscript: How much lasting impact does a celebrity stunt like this really achieve as opposed to long-term issue participation by an activist organization such as WWF? Search YouTube for Lucy Lawless, and her Greenpeace effort appears seventh with about 6,00O views in two weeks. First rank is the two year old item “Lucy Lawless gets naked for Spartacus” with over 600,000 hits !!




About managingoutcomes

Issue and crisis management expert
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