Shell, Public Relations, and the LA Auto Show

First, apologies for being gone since Thursday. The massive snow and ice storm that hit St. Louis left me stranded in Los Angeles, and I couldn’t pick up any wireless signals to speak of in the LA airport. Our power is out now, so I’m sitting in Starbuck’s (sorry, Siel) where’s there’s electricity and wireless.

I thought I should take some time to respond to some of the comments left here — there’s been much more conversation at Treehugger about Shell’s sponsorship of my trip to the LA Auto Show. I can’t speak for Treehugger (I’m pretty sure these issues will be addressed there, also), so any thoughts here are my own — only.

First, I completely understand the concern and even the accusations — I knew I’d be stepping into dangerous territory with accepting this trip. I was certainly under no illusions about Shell or Edelman — they do what they do, and I knew I’d have to be careful. I enjoyed meeting the people I met, and, again, want to thank Tristan Roy from Edelman for serving as a very gracious host. The other Edelman people I met were also kind and helpful. I know, though, that the companies themselves have agendas, and inviting me to the Auto Show was done to further those agendas.

At the same time, I do believe that the Green Blogosphere and the green movement in general simply have to engage and build relationships with these companies. We’re certainly not alone here — NRDC and the Rocky Mountain Institute have worked with Wal-Mart, a representative of the Union of Concerned Scientists was a part of the Schwarzenegger press conference at the Auto Show (and was complimentary of the efforts by the governor and the auto companies represented at the press conference). None of this, including my trip, should be seen as an endorsement of everything these companies and politicians do — I think we’ve all been openly critical when the situation called for it; we’ve also praised developments that we believe are largely positive. I plan to keep that stance — you’ll, of course, be the ultimate judges of whether I’m successful.

Paul Hawken noted in The Ecology of Commerce (and I’m paraphrasing) that the business sector is probably the biggest culprit out there in terms of environmental degradation — it clearly has major human rights and labor abuses and crimes under its belt, also. The business sector also has the wealth and power to make substantive changes in these areas, and will do so if they believe it’s in their interests. We have to show them that it is. Protest is a tool we have, and has racked up some impressive results — I’m thinking particularly of the Rainforest Action Network’s activism targeted at major financial institutions. Changes have come from that activism, and RAN should be proud of those efforts. I also enjoyed their actions at the Auto Show, and know they got a lot of people talking about the issues they raised.

If we only protest, however, we’re going to push an awful lot of people away. We’ve got make use of a broad range of tactics and strategies. I and others are trying to reach out (or responding to hands extended to us), build relationships, and make the case for a much more sustainable corporate sector. We agree with the environmental activism community that we want changes sooner than later — RAN, for instance, is correct to criticize the fact that the auto industry produces many more “green” concept vehicles than commercially available green cars. The industry’s response (and I heard this several times at the Auto Show) is that they respond to consumer demand. That’s obviously not the whole story — companies work to shape consumer demand, also. Our task out here is doubly difficult because we need to make the case to both businesses and consumers. And we’ve got to do it with a significantly smaller set of resources. I took the trip sponsorship because I saw it 1) as an opportunity to see first-hand what the auto industry was presenting in terms of “green cars; 2) as an opportunity to build relationships with these people in order to push my own agenda — a much more sustainable corporate sector.

I’m not kidding myself about any of these companies’ pasts — there are certainly questionable (to say the least) activities that need addressing. I’m also not kidding myself about how we get them to change, though — we’ve got to be at the table, in addition to bringing pressure to bear from the outside. Was my perception affected by Shell’s sponsorship? Sure it was. I’ve got to keep thinking while I’m engaging with these companies. I’m going to do my best to keep my critical distance. I’m also going to remain open, though, and try to judge proposals and actions on their merits and deficiencies. You’re welcome to tell me how well I do — because I also really value the conversations we have here. I’ll also think very hard about any further “junket” offers… I believe I’ve kept that critical distance, but I also a know being their guest presents issues.

UPDATE: Nick Aster has some thoughts on this topic, too… and it was also great to finally meet Nick in person in LA…. there’s a great picture of him, me and Hank Green floating around somewhere…

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