how to make stories that get people's attention

the greenpeace method

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‘You fucking Greenpeace!’
A man in an M-reg Mercedes Landcruiser is shouting, his face bloated with red, fiery rage.
‘Why don’t you get a job, you fucking lazy fucking cunts!’
His hair’s swept back over his head, in a big, greasy quiff. I’m standing in the middle of an Esso forecourt, and all the pumps have been locked up by people in tiger suits. For some reason, he assumes it’s my fault.
One of the tigers is trying to apologise to him and explain why they’re there. Whatever she’s saying to him, he’s not overly convinced; he slams his foot on the accelerator and ploughs his way out of the garage, screaming obscenities at everyone in earshot.

There’s probably only one person in the world angrier. Somewhere deep in Sussex, the pager on Gordon Sawyer’s belt has just bleeped into life. Site security at Esso UK’s headquarters in Leatherhead have decided to interrupt his breakfast to tell him that tigers are roaming around on the roof of the building. Gordon is the head of Public Relations for Esso UK and it’s his job to make sure this sort of thing doesn’t happen. It’s been happening rather a lot recently.
Last month, for example, anti-war protestors, who think Exxon are going to profit from the war in Iraq, dressed up as dolphins and jumped about on ExxonMobil’s immaculately manicured landscaped gardens at their Leatherhead HQ, driving enormous papier maché tanks up and down the Teletubby-style hillsides. When Greenpeace found out ExxonMobil in the US had been funding groups like the Global Climate Coalition – who campaigned to stop America from signing up to The Kyoto Treaty – they held simultaneous protests outside several hundred Esso petrol stations. Twice.
And then they shut down every Esso petrol station in Luxembourg.
But It shouldn’t be this easy. Esso is the world’s biggest company. Last year they made $13 billion.
But Greenpeace have found a weak spot. Esso might have more money, more resources, more cars and more security. But none of that matters, if you’re attacking the company’s good name. If you’re after their image – maybe the most valuable thing they have – all you have to do is outsmart Gordon.

‘This is probably the most ambitious stunt so far,’ explains Greenpeace’s press officer over coffee, 48 hours before the petrol station stunt. ‘You don’t mind getting arrested do you?’
He flashes a grin like a mischievous schoolboy. One hand’s around a mobile, the fingers of his other hand drumming the table nervously.
‘This is probably the closest you’ll ever come to doing a bankjob. I can’t tell you much about what’s going to happen – we know the security services are listening to us.’
If it was anyone else, you might think he was paranoid. But last month, Greenpeace occupied the Sizewell B nuclear power plant, so it’s reasonable to assume someone might be keeping an eye on him.
‘All I can tell you is that the codename for the whole operation is The Italian Job,’ he says.

The meeting point in Chelmsford is a Travel Inn hotel. Feeling conspicuous, among the salesmen and Alan Partridge lookalikes, the photographer and I walk into the hotel bar, order a lemonade and a half of Murphy’s and sit down to watch Some Mothers Do ‘Ave ‘Em on the TV. When the Greenpeace people arrive they are equally conspicuous, wearing woolly hats and ‘Stop the War’ badges. And the man behind the counter is signing them in as ‘the group from Greenpeace’.
There’s no high-security briefing in a hotel room, curtains drawn, lights low, maybe a tap running, to confuse MI6 bugging devices. Instead, we sit down to dinner in the Travel Inn restaurant, and tuck into microwave lasagnes and pavlovas, laying out the plans on the table. The only nod to security is talking a bit quieter when the waitress comes over to take our orders.
Roger, a seasoned Greenpeace campaigner from Tasmania, pulls out Jiffy bags, D-locks, maps, car keys, a screwdriver and some stickers.
Each person has been assigned a role. Training took place last Sunday. Mock-ups of vital bits of Esso garages were provided so they could do practice-runs. They’re trained on how to be carried off by a policeman without technically resisting arrest. And how not to get into fights. Each person in this group has taken holiday from their jobs in order to be able to take part.
‘I’d signed up for the Sizewell B one, but I couldn’t get the time off work,’ explains Stuart, a binman from Colchester.
As we turn in for the night at innocuous business hotels up and down the country, people are quietly preparing for the morning. At 300 petrol stations, meanwhile, night staff are just signing in for their shifts, with no idea what’s planned for them the next morning. And, somewhere, Gordon Sawyer is sleeping. When he wakes up, he’s not going to be happy.

5am. Fluorescent streetlights reflecting off wet tarmac. The sun’s not yet up and the roads are still empty. In the car park, the two guys and the old lady are sitting in the back of the Ford Galaxy. Roger is ringing Greenpeace HQ for the all clear. At 5.37 we roll out of the car park.
About two-hundred yards down the road, Roger pulls over into a Sainsbury’s car park, just round the back of the local Esso garage. We walk through a gap in the hedge, straight on to the forecourt.
Jen – a sweet, quintessentially English old lady and Greenham Common veteran – is first in, padding into the Esso shop in full tiger costume.
‘Now, please don’t take this personally,’ she explains to a bemused man behind the till, ‘but we’re from Greenpeace and this is a peaceful protest.’ She keeps them occupied, wittering on endearingly about climate change and the military-industrial complex.
Roger meanwhile is up a stepladder in the forecourt, turning off the petrol station’s power supply. Then Stuart and Neil set to work locking up the pumps. They want to be in and out in about two minutes, which gives them about ten seconds a pump. The longer they stay in the garage, the more likely they are to get arrested. They don’t look up from what they’re doing for a second.
Drivers who had been trying to fill up stand looking confused, clicking the triggers helplessly. Val (also dressed as a tiger) takes the pump out of their hand, swaps it for a Stop Esso flyer, and points them in the direction of the nearest non-hijacked garage.
Roger is coolly unscrewing the handle from the station’s main power switch. Once it’s off, he slaps a ‘DANGER – HIGH VOLTAGE’ sticker over the switch and calls out that it’s ‘time to go!’
Inside five minutes, the whole station has been incapacitated.
On the way to the next station, Val bags up the electricity switch and the keys to the locks and posts them off to Esso’s headquarters. In Texas.

When, a couple of weeks later, I arrive at Esso’s UK headquarters, down a leafy lane in rural Surrey, they’ve stepped up security. A big yellow spot on the wall in reception lets the staff know there’s a ‘Yellow Security Alert’. Opposite it is a painting of an old man and a little girl, planting a tree.
Gordon’s office is on the first floor, with a nice view of green pastures and cows grazing. He’s got a little fluffy Tigger sitting on the top of his computer.
He’s been working for Exxon for 40 years, starting out as an engineer, back in the days when oil was clean, smoking was healthy and working for Esso was something to be proud of. Back in the days when the internet didn’t exist and mischievous young scamps couldn’t just log on and slag off upstanding companies with poor environmental records.
Gordon writes letters to the editor of The Guardian, but it doesn’t stop the paper writing about Greenpeace’s campaigns. Fluffy tigers always make better newspaper stories than big oily ones. And writing to The Guardian doesn’t stop thousands of people getting together online to bitch about Esso.
He knows it’s not really about shutting down petrol stations. As he tells me, Esso don’t make any money from their petrol stations anyhow; most of the company’s money comes from oil exploration. It’s about getting in the papers. That’s why anti-capitalists break McDonald’s windows on May Day. That’s why suffragettes chained themselves up outside parliament to campaign for the vote. That’s why you burn books, smash crops or throw pies at Bill Gates. And that’s why, for 30 years, Greenpeace have whizzed about causing mischief in a bloody great big boat – the Rainbow Warrior is almost as photogenic as cute young students in tiger suits. ‘They are quite skilful communicators,’ says Gordon. ‘I don’t think we’ll ever be as good as they are.’

Making my way up the coast of East Anglia with Roger and pals, knocking off garages in Ipswich, Lowestoft, Great Yarmouth and Norwich, it’s clear just how good at it they are. At one garage, the cashier comes out of the shop and takes away Roger’s ladder. He leaves it behind, finishes the job, and drives straight to B&Q to buy another one. And Jen proves to be the perfect decoy, charming shop managers and handing out lollipops to a little girl and her mum when we take out a Tesco/Esso store.
It makes you realise what you can get away with. You spend so much of your life not complaining about food in restaurants and not walking on grass, you don’t often stop to think about whether anyone would actually stop you if you tried to dismantle a petrol station in the middle of the rush-hour.
And all across the country – London, Southampton, Manchester – normal, average suburban folk were up out of bed early on a Monday and causing havoc, turning off the power, handcuffing themselves to petrol pumps.

In Leatherhead, all 1,000 of Gordon’s work colleagues are sent home, leaving Greenpeace to play. ‘It will have cost us £1 million,’ Gordon tells me, as we sit together looking out over the picturesque Exxon lake. ‘It’s an outrage – stopping good upstanding people from going to work. I think it’s disgusting’ Gordon’s a reasonable man. He looks a bit like Robert Redford: stripy blue tie, herringbone tweed jacket, a mini Gordon grinning out from the security pass on his belt. But you can see he’s furious now. He pulls out a photocopy of Greenpeace’s most recent ad, which he’s had folded up in his pocket. It shows barrels of Esso petrol and bears the line ‘The Drums of War: Find out what’s really behind the war in Iraq.’ ‘Outrageous,’ he mutters.

By lunchtime, Greenpeace people across the country have taken 120 petrol stations hostage, and our team has got to its final destination – a garage in Norwich where a cute little gang of tigers is draped over the four sets of pumps, basking in the spring sunshine. There are a couple of students from the University of East Anglia handcuffed together, catching up on some reading for their course, and trying to forget about needing to go to the loo. The ‘Honk if you don’t buy Esso’ sign is getting quite a few appreciative toots from fans driving by, but not everybody’s happy.
And, as opposed to our nifty, early-morning jaunt, the people here can’t just nip in the car at the first sign of any aggro. So when dissatisfied customers decide to vent their Monday morning frustrations on a poor defenceless tiger there’s not very much to do but sit there and take it. I’d never realised people could get quite so emotional about petrol.
‘Yoouuuuuuu!!!! Don’t be stuuuuooooppiiiidd!!!!’
A middle-aged blonde woman is completely losing the plot. John, (the dashing ginger tiger in the photos), is on the receiving end of it, and is handcuffed to the pump she’s trying to use.
‘They’re the ones who pay to clean up the bloody mess… I should send you a bill for myyyy lost wages!!!!!!!’ she caterwauls.
She’s going to have to drive a full 50 yards to the next garage. But all over Britain, there are people who think it’s worth inconveniencing themselves, to the point of being handcuffed to a petrol pump all day. Protesting is shit. You have to wear a nappy. It’s boring, it’s inconvenient and it’s always, always easier to sit in front of the telly with a big fat spliff and some Doritos. But, in the last year, a million people have marched through London – and millions more have done the same in Rome, Barcelona and around the world. Maybe the short-attention-spanned MTV generation aren’t such slackers after all.

I left John being screamed at by the crazy woman, and headed for BBC East’s Norwich studios to hand in the tapes of that morning’s efforts.
Two minutes after we chatted to the producer of the lunchtime news, we settled down in the lobby of BBC East – housed in what was once Thomas More’s Norwich home, replete with chandeliers and spiral staircase – and watch our protest as the top item. The reporter reads from the piece of paper we’d handed over a couple of seconds earlier.
Millions will have seen it on TV, and in the morning it’s going to be in all the papers. And our job is done. But Gordon’s is just beginning.