Anil Agarwal-led Vedanta goes directly to the people to make its case

Fighting bad press is a deadly game, but even deadlier is battling an avalanche of smear on social media. Ask Vedanta, the company has been under fire for alleged violations of environmental norms across the country, and most recently has had its copper smelter (Sterlite Industries) shut down in Tamil Nadu, after violent public protests. 

As the shadows of its anti-green persona threaten to cover every aspect of its business in the country, the company has released full page advertisements in leading national newspapers on Vedanta’s commitment to energy sufficiency or as it says, “demonstrate our alignment with the government’s endeavour to reduce energy dependency, and showcase our capabilities in oil and gas exploration and production”. The ad headlined ‘Now it’s time’ is seen as an effort to establish the company as a socially responsible entity. Instead of lobbying with the government, as would have been the norm in the past, the company has preferred to appeal in the court of public opinion. 

Vedanta is not the only one taking this route. Earlier this month Facebook launched full page advertisements to fight fake news on WhatsApp. The ad offers a primer on social media etiquette aimed to educate people and the government that has sought to regulate the app after the spate of deaths by mob lynching.  

Lobbying the people to get governments on board is now a global practice. Over the past month, Uber London has unleashed what has been widely labelled the ‘charm offensive’ via all media channels to win back people and through them the right to operate its vehicles in the city. The company’s license was revoked last year.

Running afoul of public opinion is not a first for Vedanta, but to repair public perception may not have been as imperative in the past. In an e-mailed statement the company said, “The ad aims to highlight the potential of the oil and gas industry in India, and raise awareness about its impact on the end-consumer, the people of India. Our target audience is primarily the Indian people.” Interestingly the ad has three global leaders (Narendra Modi, Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin) espousing the cause of global resources and energy independence. The company says the ad highlights the importance of developing this sector (in alignment with the vision of the present government) and the global relevance of the message. The ad comes at a time when the government is planning to cut oil imports by 10 per cent in the next four years. Currently, India is dependent on imports for 80 per cent of its crude oil requirement. 

“This (the advertisement) is loud, transparent, clean lobbying as opposed to quiet lobbying which is not transparent. Through the advertisement, it seems Vedanta not only wants to be clean, open and transparent in what it is doing but also wants to be seen as clean, open and transparent in what it is representing,” explained Harish Bijoor, chief executive officer at Harish Bijoor Consults Inc.

Clearly the company wants to smoothen the sharp edges to its image, not just with the powers that be, but also with the people. In recent years public opinion has turned into a sharp sword that governments, activists and companies have fallen on when they have failed to take it seriously. 

In May, the Madras High Court ordered permanent shut down of Sterlite Industries’ copper smelter in Tuticorin after the protests led to the death of 13 people. The protests had started in February as local residents demanded permanent closure of the 400,000 tonne plant on environmental grounds. The company has had similar run-ins in other countries too. 

 “When a company puts an advertisement of this kind it is more to build up some kind of popular opinion on that subject by stating the facts,” explained Prabhakar Mundkur, an advertising and branding veteran. The Vedanta advertisement comes on the back of the government’s decision to appeal a Delhi High Court verdict in favour of Cairn India. The Court had asked the government to extend Rajasthan production sharing contract (PSC) operated by Cairn India till 2030 on the same terms and conditions as was entered in 1995. The 25-year contract for Rajasthan's Barmer field (RJ-ON-90/1) is due for renewal on May 14, 2020. Vedanta has approached the court for a 10 year extension on the same commercial terms, but the government has challenged the order.

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