There’s no such thing as bad publicity – Virunga finally in the UK headlines

Posted on October 27, 2013


A row over the latest celebrity-endorsed campaign by the conservation giant WWF has lead to more coverage across newspaper titles than it probably could have hoped for. Nothing like controversy to get tongues wagging. Note to self NGOs!

Conservation is not a sexy subject to news editors. But throw in a good-looking woman, filmed in an exotic lush green landscape talking about saving endangered species and BINGO, they’re sitting up. Now if the accused is a multi-billion pound oil company then we’re talking potential headlines especially if a slagging match ensues as it has done over the weekend.

The fury by Soco, a London-based oil firm, is over the wording of the film and the location where it is shot. The actress Anna Friel who gave her name to the WWF campaign has been lambasted for ‘deliberately distorted the facts’. To be fair, she most likely didn’t write the script and like a good performer, delivered her lines as she was told. Her appeal is about raising public awareness that the firm has plans to start drilling in Africa’s oldest park, the Virunga National Park, home to the mountain gorilla and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Friel uses the phrase “in this place” suggesting that she is in the Democratic Republic of Congo, when in fact the film was shot across the border in Uganda with the a part of the park in the background. The Foreign Office advises against travel to the Republic of Congo. According to newspaper reports Friel says she would have “loved to” have crossed the border but was advised not to due to the “armed conflict”.

The film was shot by renown director Stephen Poliakoff and is being screened as one of the main trailers before films in more than 100 cinemas across the UK.

Soco has issued a statement saying the area it plans to explore for oil, Block V, contains no gorillas. It added that: “The clever use of animals and lush jungle shots depicted in the film that are simply not in the area of interest in Block V is misleading.”

Ok the film should have been more transparent but the point is, it’s a national park and seismic testing is not contained and any disturbance will affect all flora and fauna. Not to mention the indirect impact that will have on the local population who rely on eco-tourism for their livelihoods. If oil is found, then I suppose it invites the supplementary question – ‘When will drilling start?’ That would be a disaster because the noise, pollution and disruption would decimate one of the few remaining virgin forests.

It does frustrate me that off the back of the Great Apes Summit in Jackson Hole where I moderated a session about extractive industries it’s obvious that we still clearly need more awareness and education about the immediate impact testing has in these precious areas. CEOs and investors just don’t get it. NGOs you need to start engaging directly with these companies. There’s no point fighting these companies that are not going to go away and demand for natural resources is every increasing with the global population rising all the time.

I have been blogging about this issue since 2009 and I think it’s brilliant and ironic frankly that the story is finally making headlines all because the film was done in Uganda and not the Democratic Republic of Congo. If it had been, not a single newspaper editor would have batted an eyelid as there would be no drama. No such thing as bad publicity. Thank you for kicking up a fuss Soco, you’ve done a marvellous job of spreading the word.