A major new charm offensive due to be launched this week by the £37 billion petrochemical giant, INEOS, to win Scotland round to fracking - but the public relations campaign has already run into fierce flak before even getting off the ground.
Environmentalists and politicians have attacked the forthcoming campaign involving London-based public relations companies as “PR spin” and “slick marketing” designed to divide communities.
A company called Mediazoo has invited journalists to Grangemouth on Tuesday to meet senior INEOS executives over sandwiches. There will be an announcement on “plans for a major new Scottish shale gas community engagement programme,” the invitation says.
The announcement is expected to include more details on an existing promise to pay hundreds of millions of pounds to landowners and communities around fracking sites. There will also be a meeting of up to 80 community councillors at Grangemouth on Thursday.
The invitation to the 90-minute “roundtable briefing” from INEOS’s communications manager, Richard Longden, describes the extraction of shale gas by the hydraulic fracturing of underground rock is “a very emotive subject”. The company will explain how it “has the potential to benefit the economy and everyday lives of people in Scotland,” he says.
Last week INEOS announced that it had bought the entire shale gas exploration licence covering 130 square miles of central Scotland around Grangemouth from another company, iGas. INEOS plans to become “the biggest player in the UK shale gas industry”, it said.
But first it has to overcome widespread opposition to fracking in Scotland. In January the Scottish Government imposed a moratorium on all fracking developments while the health and environmental implications are examined.
INEOS director, Tom Crotty, has pointed out, however, that the moratorium has no timescale. “We are launching our Scottish consultation programme next week, to try and persuade people that this technology is absolutely safe and will have big economic benefits,” he told an industry publication last week.
INEOS’s global PR is handled by Mediazoo, based at Imperial Wharf in London. “We have the knowledge, contacts and know-how to drive your content into the mainstream media and engage millions more with social or digital campaigns,” says Mediazoo’s website.
“With an unrivalled knowledge of how the media works, nobody is better suited to look after your reputation in a crisis. A national, international, or local crisis can happen at any time and so it's best to be prepared.”
Among Mediazoo’s other major clients are HSBC, the bank accused of helping tax evaders in Switzerland; BP, the oil company facing a fine of up £9 billion for the Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico; and EDF, the French state company trying to build a new nuclear power station at Hinkley Point in Somerset.
Mary Church, head of campaigns at Friends of the Earth Scotland, said: “It’s no surprise that INEOS is resorting to flash London-based spin-doctors to try and lovebomb Scottish communities to stop worrying and love fracking.”
She pointed out that INEOS could afford a “long and dirty fight” while campaign groups had to get by on a shoestring. “No amount of PR spin can reduce the climate change impact of exploiting shale gas,” she said.
According to the Scottish Green MSP, Alison Johnstone, communities across the central belt were “up in arms” at the prospect of being fracked. “I very much doubt that any amount of slick marketing by Swiss-based multinational INEOS will cut any ice locally,” she said.
“The real prize for Scotland is the creation of skilled, sustainable employment in energy efficiency and renewables. Let's not be distracted from that ambition by a drilling firm’s expensive charm offensive.”
Maria Montinaro, a community councillor for Shieldhill and California in Falkirk, argued that communities deserved proper consultation on fracking. “Community engagement must not be just a tick box exercise to further future planning applications,” she said.
“The primary purpose of this exercise should be to determine if the industry has the social licence to exploit unconventional gas in Scotland. To that end Shieldhill and California Community Council will be reciprocating INEOS's invite to a village meeting open to all residents.”
Walter Inglis, convener of Grangemouth Community Council until it folded in 2013, accused INEOS of trying to “bypass the established communications mechanisms and create a divide within the wider community.” The company would promise jobs and community benefit funds “which if they are to be believed will be a panacea for all our current economic ills,” he said.
Via Mediazoo, a spokesman for INEOS said: “At INEOS we believe it is important that everyone across Scotland gets an equal chance to find out about shale gas, and have their questions answered in an honest and open way. In light of this, this week at a press conference we will announce details of a number of innovative community engagement initiatives.”
He added: “We believe it is irresponsible to try to stifle discussion on an issue that is so important to the future of the Scottish economy. Given our expertise INEOS has an important contribution to make to the debate to inform the Scottish public.”