Covering itself in glory
Greenpeace has hit the headlines again - but this time the media claim they have been duped. Nicholas Schoon on one of the world's most high-profile PR machines
Tuesday 05 September 1995
Even as Shell's men moved through the platform, waterproof bags containing film and video footage - just shot by a Greenpeace photographer and cameraman - were flung overboard, to be picked up by a Greenpeace inflatable. Meanwhile, a light aircraft hired by the environmental organisation took aerial photographs.
It was the same story in July when French commandos stormed the Rainbow Warrior II off Mururoa in the South Pacific. The crew used the satellite phone to give a commentary of wheelhouse windows being smashed and tear- gas canisters lobbed in. They captured their own capture on video.
Last month, when Greenpeace protested against Chinese nuclear testing, in Tiananmen Square, it ensured there was a way of smuggling footage out of the country.
Greenpeace is a committed communicator that keeps talking to the end - which is why it is the planet's best-known environmental organisation. It produces media packages that are used all over the world, and has impressive archives of still and moving images. It also publishes books.
Critics and enemies are, of course, appalled by the way a relatively small, self-appointed outfit can command the headlines. Indeed, even those who have profited from Greenpeace's efficiency have recently taken to carping. Looking back on the Brent Spar coverage, David Lloyd, senior commissioning editor of Channel 4 news and current affairs, told the Edinburgh Television Festival last week: "We were bounced. By the time broadcasters tried to introduce scientific argument into the narrative, the story had long since been spun far, far in Greenpeace's direction."
Richard Sambrook, head of newsgathering operations at the BBC, admitted: "It was our own, the media's fault. We never put enough distance between ourselves and the participants. I'm left feeling Greenpeace was pulling us by the nose."
Quentin Bell, head of the Quentin Bell Organisation and chairman of the Public Relations Consultants' Association, shrugs off the fuss: "I think that's disgraceful. The media were joyful in taking the angle they did at the time of Brent Spar, and now they are pontificating, saying, `How terrible'. They played the game and then they moan about it afterwards. It's entirely justifiable for Greenpeace to use effective PR. PR is about putting your case across in order to win the argument. PR is all about psychology. The British, journalists included, like the underdog to win, and Greenpeace used that. There's nothing wrong with that."
Until this year, Greenpeace had quietly and successfully got on with improving techniques for seizing air time and column inches. But it was surprised when it came under attack in the British press in the immediate aftermath of its Brent Spar victory, after Shell called off its plans to sink the structure and the contaminants inside.
It was not merely a matter of indignation on the part of right-wing newspapers at the way in which a group of activists had humiliated one of Britain's largest multinationals and the Tory government that had supported it. There was widespread questioning among the UK media, including the BBC, as to whether Greenpeace deserved to win.
The suggestion was that Greenpeace had won the day thanks to the continental media, which uncritically broadcast Greenpeace's emotional appeals not to dump the Spar in the Atlantic. They simply could not resist using the dramatic TV images of a David and Goliath confrontation at sea. Thus, said the critics, the Europeans, and especially the Germans, were persuaded to boycott Shell.
This line of argument irritates Richard Titchen, an ex-BBC journalist who is Greenpeace International's director of communications. "I don't even have a budget to take anyone to lunch. But I make no apology to those critics who say we have this professional communications capability. We've no control over the way journalists use our material. I use the same editorial standards and guidelines as I did during 16 years at the BBC. I won't apologise for our success."
Mission headquarters is a small office building in Farringdon, central London. Greenpeace International, which co-ordinates the individual Greenpeace groups in 30 nations, is based in Amsterdam but Greenpeace Communications is based in one of the world's top five media cities.
Mr Titchen is one of seven executive directors of Greenpeace International. He has 29 staff and an annual budget of $1.5m, just over 5 per cent of the organisation's budget.
It all began as Greenpeace Film in the Seventies - one cameraman with a 16mm camera filming campaigns on board a Greenpeace ship. When the ship eventually docked after making its protest, the film would be touted around TV news executives.
A rapid expansion began at the close of the Eighties when news editors became reluctant to use videos which were weeks old. At the same time, the huge expansion in television news around the world, especially in developed countries, was accompanied by the slashing of editorial budgets. Foreign bureaux were closing down. Editors were no longer willing to fly a camera crew out to join a Greenpeace ship. "We decided to develop our own capability," says Mr Titchen.
Greenpeace Communications has a list of freelance photographers and cameraman dotted around the world. Their photographs and video footage can be transmitted back to London from the remotest places by satellite. From there, they are distributed to the London offices of the international television and print news agencies, and the press offices of its individual country organisations. There is no charge for use.
Video footage is first edited into a "video news release", a sequence of moving images with an accompanying script and voice-over, often in a country's own language. The entire footage shot is appended at the end, so the TV news agency can do its own editing, should it want to. Mr Titchen says he expects news producers to organise their own script and add a "balancing'' interview. "Unfortunately, in some Central and East European countries, they've taken the story just as we've put it together. We don't want coverage to be one-sided."
Greenpeace is particularly proud of its three-year-old "squisher" - an expensive device to convert video footage into a stream of digital signals which can be sent rapidly by satellite telephone link to headquarters - at significantly less cost than other satellite transmissions. "We just can't afford pounds 1,000 a minute," says Mr Titchen. The tiny Greenpeace fleet in the South Pacific had improved squisher capabilities.
The organisation has recently expanded its commercial-image archive by buying the Environmental Picture Library. It has handed over its publishing arm to an agent, to avoid exposure to financial risk but retains editorial control over the text and works used in Greenpeace Books. Publishing books is one way of communicating the Greenpeace message without depending entirely on journalists - something Adam Woolf, chief press officer for Greenpeace UK, says the organisation must not neglect.
"The media is always going to be central to us," he says. "But there are other ways of reaching people, through our membership - and through the Internet." His worry is that the media portray Greenpeace as an organisation mainly concerned with "disasters, confrontations and stunts - it's a slightly distorted view," he says. "Journalists are much less interested in our research, our behind-the-scenes campaigning and our advocacy of solutions."
Indeed. But for the time being it's safe to assume they will keep on taking the action footage - even if they do beat their breasts about such "manipulation" later.
Additional reporting by Decca Aitkenhead.
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