Shell sponsorship and the London Science Museum

If you’d like to see how oil giant Royal Dutch Shell (one of the largest multi-national corporations in the world’s history) uses its corporate philanthropy to subtly change the core direction of potentially adversarial content at a renowned science museum educating millions, here’s your chance.

The story of how Shell came to sponsor the London Science Museum’s “Atmosphere” program that, according to its director, emphasizes as much about what we don’t know about climate science as what we do know, is a story pulled straight from the well-established corporate public relations playbook.

When confronted with science, evidence and facts that aren’t especially helpful to your company’s bottom line — the playbook says to change the focus, or sow doubt about the certainty of the science. It worked for years for the tobacco industry. Big companies, like Shell, have clearly learned from its successes (and failures).

The story begins simply enough, according to 315 pages of internal email exchanges between officials of the London Science Museum and Shell officials that were obtained under the Freedom of Information Act and released this week by an activist organization.

In 2013, the Science Museum decided to feature a program about independent scientist James Lovelock, and his predictions in the 1960s about what the world might look like in the year 2000, according to a summary of highlights from the activist organization, BP or not BP, that obtained the documents from the museum under FOIA.

Lovelock is known for his apocalyptic (and controversial) predictions about Earth — that we’re all essentially headed towards the 8th disaster in the planet’s history, one that will reshape cities and harm billions of people and millions of animal species as the planet’s climate system completely rejiggers itself.

It turns out that Shell had paid for Lovelock’s 1960s paper the museum wanted to highlight. They needed Shell’s permission. So museum officials reached out to Shell’s public relations office, and the conversation began. The names of both museum and Shell officials were redacted in the FOIA documents.

Throughout 2013, Shell was quite helpful. Sure, it said, the museum could quote the Lovelock paper in its entirety. No problem — just credit Shell. They were curious, though, about which aspects of the Lovelock report would be displayed. The entire document would be on display, the museum responded.

The dialogue shifted ever so slightly in February of 2014.

“In terms of the broader content, for me what was really interesting was how Lovelock sketched out the big trends driven by a rising population — in terms of energy use, urbanization, public transport, communications, etc. I wondered if this was something you wanted to reflect? If possible I’d prefer the wording not to focus on pollution and environmental damage,” Shell wrote to the museum.

This is no simple shift in tone. It’s a key public relations theme that big energy companies have deployed in the past few years as government leaders have gotten serious about climate change. Don’t blame us — blame big cities in the path of extreme weather events, and people who’ve built near the sea or in areas where hurricanes can cause billions in damages.

The notion that extensive physical and monetary damage from extreme weather events is mostly due to land use and urbanization — rather than from growing climate impacts driven by carbon emissions from Shell and others — has emerged as a central defensive strategy.

What Shell is also asking here, politely, is that the museum focus on those things — and not on pollution and environmental damage. It also asked the museum to describe Shell as an energy company, not a petro-chemical company.

In the spring, the museum invited Shell officials to dinners and lunches. Shell began to consider sponsoring a new museum exhibit, one that would eventually be called “Atmosphere,” and would show the public what we know about climate science — and what we don’t know yet.

This, too, is a key defensive public relations strategy deployed in recent years. Sure, climate change is real, as far as we know. There’s lots of established science stuff about climate change. But there are key aspects we don’t know yet, the energy companies say in the next breath. So let’s keep pushing the science until we get better answers. Let’s wait until some (distant) point in the future to change course until we have better science.

The tobacco industry refined this strategy. We need lots more science about the links between smoking and lung cancer before we can say, with certainty, what to do about it. Until then, keep smoking. We’ll keep pushing (and funding) the science for better answers. That strategy worked beautifully — until it eventually stopped working in the face of a mountain of evidence, a growing death toll and media coverage.

Shell also expressed concerns that one aspect of the Science Museum’s new exhibit would highlight how NGOs had waged activist campaigns against the corporation in the past. That was the focus of initial news stories in the Guardian and elsewhere. Shell coordinated its media response on this question with museum officials, the documents show.

But what is more interesting — and deeply embedded in the years of back and forth between the museum and Shell, and therefore much harder to tease out — is the way in which Shell guided aspects of the public climate program for its own ends as it became a principal funder of it. A climate program that talks about what we don’t know, for instance, is the core of what it would ideally hope for in such a very public exhibit in London.

Shell’s climate advisor, David Hone, also began to meet regularly with the museum staff to make substantive suggestions about the emphasis of the climate science exhibit. Hone, a former oil trader, eventually served on the museum’s advisory board, the documents show.

Science Museum and Shell officials talked about the need to agree on the “big changes” to the exhibit’s focus until it was finalized. “I’ve spoken to the (science) team and they will have a think about David’s comment,” a museum official wrote to Shell in one such exchange. “If there is a possibility of big changes, would you be in a position to indicate them now?” a museum official wrote to Shell in another instance.

In response to media coverage of its own internal documents on the Shell sponsorship, the museum’s director, Ian Blatchford, wrote in a blog post Monday that the public should be satisfied that it retained final editorial control over the exhibit. Shell made suggestions, yes, but museum officials made the final decisions.

But Blatchford’s response actually captures perfectly what Shell hoped it would achieve by paying for the exhibit. It talks about the science of climate change and what we know. But it also focuses on what we don’t know.

“Shell was a major funder of Atmosphere, our climate science gallery which provides our visitors with accurate, up-to-date information on what is known, what is uncertain, and what is not known about this important subject,” Blatchford wrote. “The gallery has been hugely popular since it opened four years ago and has now been visited by more than 3 million people.”

Blatchford then wrote that “not a single change to the curatorial programme” resulted from Shell’s influence during the years of exchanges. But the program itself highlights precisely what Shell wanted — which is “what is uncertain” and “what is not known.” That is the core of the program — in the museum director’s own words — and what any visitor takes away.

Shell has one of the best public relations teams on the planet — and a core set of the very best public relations firms on retainer as well. None of them would be so foolish as to play small ball over minor editorial changes. No, what matters is the big picture, the shift in focus to a more manageable playing field where they can claim that the science is still uncertain.

That shift in focus — to “what is not known” — is what any good public relations pro (or defense attorney) hopes for when the science, evidence and facts are stacked against you. And, in that regards, Shell got precisely what it had hoped for with this sponsorship.