Greenpeace's account of its mission to board and occupy an enormous oil-drilling rig in the middle of the Pacific evoked a familiar image of daring environmental activists confronting determined opposition from a corporate titan. The six people who used ropes and harnesses last week to scale the Royal Dutch Shell rig from inflatable rafts dodged "jets of water from high-powered hoses aimed at them by the rig's crew." There was only one problem: The encounter involved no hoses. In fact, as a later clarification from Greenpeace made clear, the activists met no resistance at all.
It was a small but telling slip-up for Greenpeace, which has been mired in an internal debate over how far to go to capture the public's attention at a time when its traditional stunts often seem familiar. Many corporate targets are now savvy enough to avoid the confrontations that hand Greenpeace camera-ready scenes to generate publicity and support. "It's no longer maybe the mind-blowing tactics that it was in the '70s or '80s to go out and take some pictures," says Laura Kenyon, a Greenpeace campaigner who participated in the latest effort to shadow the Artic-bound Shell rig across the Pacific. "People now expect things from Greenpeace."
It seems scaling a moving oil rig in the middle of an ocean isn't enough to guarantee attention. The activists managed to spend almost a week aboard Shell's Polar Pioneer before departing over the weekend. In that time Kenyon's colleagues set up camp, unfurled a "Save the Arctic" banner, and shot videos of themselves. Shell made no physical attempt to dislodge the Greenpeace team—some crew members could be seen waving to them. Shell sought a restraining order to keep the activists away, and a federal judge in Alaska granted the measure on April 11.
Procter & Gamble was similarly unruffled last year when a Greenpeace team, including one in a tiger suit, used zip lines to hang a banner between two of the company's Cincinnati office towers in a bid to draw attention to the use of palm oil from rain forests in shampoos. A local police officer rapped on a window and calmly asked the activists when they would be done. Later, in a sign of just how far corporate targets can take nonconfrontational tactics, P&G even persuaded prosecutors to reduce the charges against the activists from felony vandalism and burglary to misdemeanor trespassing.
"The case against Greenpeace was brought by the prosecutor, and we appreciated his decision to reconsider the charges," says P&G spokesman Paul Fox. "What is now important is that P&G and Greenpeace continue to work together to eliminate deforestation in the palm supply chain."
Greenpeace Executive Director Kumi Naidoo, hired in 2009 to inject fresh vigor into the 44-year-old organization, has tried to strike a balance between its militant early days and the sort of advocacy campaigns befitting an organization with an annual budget topping $300 million and 2.8 million global members. That tension boiled over late last year in one of Greenpeace's most embarrassing episodes. Activists tromped onto the grounds of the Nazca Lines in Peru to leave a climate-change message, and their tracks disturbed the 1,500-year-old cultural site and outraged an entire country.
Last month, Naidoo announced he would be leaving Greenpeace by the end of the year. He has said the decision to step down is unrelated to the Peru incident. Naidoo's legacy, according to Greenpeace's self-assessment, has been to focus resources in key environmental battles and increase its influence with companies—among them P&G, which promises to ensure no deforestation in its supply chain by 2020.
Of course, some targets still react in ham-fisted ways. Naidoo himself was blasted by water cannons while scaling a Cairn Energy oil rig off Greenland in 2011. Russia also handed the group a coup in 2013, when balaclava-clad troops stormed a Greenpeace ship during an oil platform protest and its campaigners were held for two months.
Shell's nonconfrontation strategy has forced Greenpeace to get creative. The last time the Anglo-Dutch energy giant explored for oil in the Arctic in 2012, a similar court order required Greenpeace activists to stay more than a kilometer away from its drill rigs. Greenpeace responded with an elaborate hoax, releasing a video of a faked media event "hosted" by Shell that went terribly wrong when a beverage dispenser shaped like an oil rig spewed brown liquid over an elderly guest. Greenpeace officials proudly called the video a viral sensation with more than 500,000 views in 24 hours. Some supporters, however, worried that the tactic only cast doubt on all of the group's claims. "There are so many actual damning truths that could be told to fight the good fight, but here you are wasting time blurring ethical boundaries and reducing your credibility," one reader posted to Greenpeace's blog.
The group promoted last week's occupation of the Shell rig on social media, using the hashtag #thecrossing on Twitter. "This is the first time we're doing such a long journey," Greenpeace's Kenyon says. "To try and keep people's attention and keep them interested and engaged over a long period of time can be very challenging." On its peak day, #thecrossing drew almost 10,000 posts on Twitter, according to San Francisco-based Topsy Labs. A hashtag offering support for Taylor Swift's cancer-stricken mother, by contrast, generated almost 400,000 messages on April 9.
Over the weekend, the climbers rappelled off the rig, saying it was because of worsening weather, not the pending ruling. No water cannons fired.