The real question to ask about Shellâ€™s unbelievably crass decision not to allow the sale of poppies at their petrol stations this year is at what level the call as made. Ignore the statement from Shirley Cinco, at Shellâ€™s â€œCustomer Service Centreâ€ in Manchester, that: â€œRather than simply giving to worthy causes, Shell prefers to donate skills, time and knowledge as well as money. It is in the context of this strategy that Shell Retail will not be allowing any further charities, including the poppy appeal, to use its forecourt network to collect monies.â€ This is corporate speak of the worst kind and misses the real issue by many a mile. That issue is, of course, not about the decision itself but about who took it and about how it is perceived.Â The British Legion even uses a photograph of poppies projected onto Shell Centre to publicise the value of corporate partnerships!
I have blogged myself on the subject of Remembrance Day and in doing so I was especially mindful of the fact that even to write about this subject is problematic. There is no more important social and cultural phenomenon than Remembrance Day in Britain â€“ an importance that this year is especially significant given the appalling loss of life in Afghanistan.Â And the Poppy is arguably just about the most powerful brand symbolÂ here â€“ certainly at this time of the year. There is no other charity that reaches the hearts and minds of the British population more than the British Legion and to risk alienating them is frankly absurd. Reasoned argument about Remembrance Day (which I tried to give in my Blog) should be fair enough. But you donâ€™t take decisions that will turn war veterans against you!
The statement by Ms Cinco was not only the wrong thing to say and said at the wrong time but it was a statement made by someone far too low down the Shell in the UK food chain. If it really was necessary to take the decision not to sell poppies at petrol stations then the announcement about this should have been at a time when Remembrance was not so vividly in the public eye. It should have been made by somebody at a very senior level. And it should have been accompanied by something which would have turned a negative into a positive. Ideally it should have been a joint announcement with the Legion itself â€“ indeed if the British Legion could not go along with the decision it should not have been taken. Itâ€™s that important.
Managing the brand and reputation of a big corporation like Shell is not easy but there are certain precepts that are inviolable. Most of these are commonsense â€“ something that seems to be sadly missing in this instance. The â€œbenefitâ€ to Shell of not selling poppies in petrol stations must have been tiny â€“ if there was one at all. But the damage to the companyâ€™s reputation is now very large indeed. In the coming days it will no doubt emerge how all this happened. If I was advising my old employer I would tell them simply to apologise, say it wonâ€™t happen again and make a thumping donation to the British Legion as a gesture of goodwill!