In 2013 BP, the British multinational oil and gas company, became a sponsor for the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC). BP’s sponsorship makes it possible for 16-25 year olds to get £5 tickets, granting them an affordable way to experience the company’s productions.

But on October 2, 2019, RSC used social media to announce their plan to end their relationship with BP.

The timeline of events leading up to RSC‘s decision began in April 2010, when BP‘s Deepwater Horizon drilling rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico. It was the largest marine oil spill in the history of the petroleum industry, and the well was not sealed until five months later on September 19, 2010 (Weber, 2010).

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EAST GRAND TERRE ISLAND – JUNE 07: A dead sea turtle lies next to a rolling tide of crude oil, released following the sinking of the BP Deepwater Horizon drilling rig, along the shore of East Grand Terre Island on June 7, 2010. (Photo by Benjamin Lowy/Edit by Getty Images)

Understandably, BP suffered criticism regarding the ethics of fossil fuel extraction. BP responded by creating Corporate Social Responsibility departments and inviting non-governmental organizations (NGOs) like the RSC to develop partnerships with them (Uldam & Vestergaard, 2015).

BP also sponsors four other NGOs: the British Museum, the National Portrait Gallery, the Royal Opera House, and the Tate Britain museum.

” … sponsorships help portray oil companies such as BP as good corporate citizens that make a positive contribution to our society. However, activists contest these initiatives as greenwashing, designed to divert attention from their business operations and their effect on people and the environment” (Uldam & Vestergaard, 2015).

Adding their voice

During the launch of the BP-sponsored World Shakespeare Festival in 2012, twenty-eight individuals involved in the arts published a letter in the Guardian, voicing their distaste for BP’s involvement.

“We, as individuals involved in theatre and the arts, are deeply concerned that the RSC – like other much-cherished cultural institutions – is allowing itself to be used by BP to obscure the destructive reality of its activities. We would like to see an end to oil sponsorship of the arts and are committed to finding more responsible ways to finance this country’s cultural life, for our own and future generations” (Oiling the wheels of the Shakespeare festival, 2012).

Mark Ruffalo, actor and activist, voiced his concerns in 2016.

In June of 2019, one of the original signers of the letter sent during the World Shakespeare Festival, Academy Award-winning actor Sir Mark Rylance announced he was ending his 30-year relationship with RSC. He officially resigned from his post as an RSC associate artist. (Evans, 2019).

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On September 23, 2019, Greta Thunberg’s impassioned United Nations General Assembly speech caught the attention of the world. The YouTube video currently has 342,255 views, and she has 2,565,106 followers in her Facebook community. To put it in context, BP has 863,433 followers. Her plea for world leaders to wake up to the consequences of inaction are compelling.

Greta Thunberg’s United Nations General Assembly speech

The Letter

Most recently, and perhaps most importantly, a group of students published a letter to the RSC on the UK Student Climate Network webpage. They call out BP’s human rights record, and join with Sir Mark Rylance in his stand against the RSC/BP relationship.

” … BP’s human rights record is an embarrassment. Their close relationship with repressive governments and regimes such as Egypt, Mexico and Russia has led to horrendous human rights violations. BP’s funding of the Indonesian government help them to buy guns which are used for the genocide of the people of West Papua, and they have been accused of being complicit in the kidnapping and torture of Columbian trade unionist Gilberto Torres” (Youth Letter to the Royal Shakespeare Companyy, 2019).

The role of social media

Social media is a resource that can be used to motivate companies to be socially accountable. Organizations like Youth Strike 4 Climate, the UK Student Climate Network, and EcoInternet use Facebook and Twitter to rally support for what they call “climate justice.”

How RSC responded

On October 2, 2019 RSC Artistic Director Gregory Doran and Executive Director Catherine Mallyon used social media to point readers to their website, which included their full statement regarding their decision to cut ties to BP. Their announcement was carefully worded to show how they valued their youth audience.

“Central to our organisational values, is that we listen to and respond to the views of young people” (Royal Shakespeare Company, 2019).

“Amidst the climate emergency, which we recognise, young people are now saying clearly to us that the BP sponsorship is putting a barrier between them and their wish to engage with the RSC. We cannot ignore that message” (Royal Shakespeare Company, 2019).

But they were also careful to thank BP for their support over the years.

“We would like to thank BP for their generous support of the RSC since 2011. We have issued 80,000 tickets to young people who have been able to experience our work through the BP sponsored scheme” (Royal Shakespeare Company, 2019).

The original complaint made by the artist community during the World Shakespeare Festival in 2012 had little impact. But social media’s exponential growth since that time has proved to be the driving force behind the climate change movement.

Greta Thunberg’s huge social media following, along with the post of her UN speech just two days prior to the posting of the UK Youth Letter to RSC created the perfect storm for RSC. Social media exploded, and RSC was forced to finally take action.

Over the years, different individuals and organizations stepped forward to make their voices heard. When the announcement was made, the response on social media was largely one of relief.

BP’s response

On the same day, BP used Twitter to point readers to their statement, also carefully worded to reinforce their branding as a company that is “beyond petroleum” (Uldam & Vestergaard, 2015).

“We recognize the world is on an unsustainable path and needs to transition rapidly to net-zero in the coming decades. The debate centres around how to deliver this whilst meeting the world’s growing energy demands. BP is focused on this dual challenge; we are in action, have ambitious plans for the future and welcome engagement with all about how to make the energy we produce cleaner and better” (BP statement in response to RSC ending our partnership early, 2019).

Could RSC have responded better?

I believe RSC‘s response was eloquent and sincere, albeit very late. Their choice to avoid expressing any argument as to why they kept their relationship with BP for so long was a wise one. Best to squelch the fire and move forward as a socially responsible organization.

Monitoring is key

It’s still important for RSC to monitor online activity to keep abreast of the situation. They can do that by creating Google Alerts or using a social media search engine like

If additional response to social comments are necessary, consider the influence and credibility of the writer and respond appropriately. The response has the potential to be highly scrutinized, so RSC should use empathy and be conversational. Above all, they should not argue their point of view. It’s critical to be transparent and if possible, provide a solution if the situation warrants it.

While it’s important to continue monitoring to make sure the issue doesn’t resurface in some way, it’s equally important to continue posting positive and engaging content. This is essential in RSC‘s case due to the amount of time it took for them to take action regarding their relationship with BP.

Are you really listening?

RSC should be sure to:

  • Keep their finger on the pulse of the conversation.
  • Evaluate the credibility and intensity of the message.
  • Respond empathetically and in a timely fashion.
  • Continue to post highly engaging content that shows they care about their audience.

” … social media can also act as organizational processes by providing (more or less) coherent allocation of resources, creating divisions of labour, curating and retrieving content, and responding to events and changing ecological conditions” (Uldam & Vestergaard, 2015).

Our youth will continue to make their voices heard, using social media as their bullhorn. It’s RSC‘s job to make sure they are listening … and responding.

until nxt time …


BP statement in response to RSC ending our partnership early | News and insights | Home. (October 2, 2019). Retrieved from:

Carpani, J. (2019, October 2). Royal Shakespeare Company ends partnership with BP over concerns about climate. The Telegraph. Retrieved from:

Chen, J. (2019, February 11). Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR). Retrieved from:

Deduleasa, A. (2019, October 2). BP ‘dismayed’ as Royal Shakespeare Company ends sponsorship deal | Upstream Online. Retrieved from:

Democracy Now! (2016). “You Are Hurting Future Generations”: Mark Ruffalo’s Message to People Profiting From Fossil Fuels—YouTube. Retrieved from

Evans, G. (2019, June 21). Oscar-winning actor Mark Rylance quits Royal Shakespeare Company over big oil sponsorship deal. Retrieved from:

Oiling the wheels of the Shakespeare festival. (2012, April 22). The Guardian. Retrieved from

Pickford, J. (2019, July 8). British Museum rejects calls to drop BP sponsorship deal. Retrieved from:

Royal Shakespeare Company. (2015). BP £5 tickets | Royal Shakespeare Company—YouTube. Retrieved from:

Royal Shakespeare Company. (2019, October 2). Latest Press Releases | Royal Shakespeare Company. Retrieved from:

Sagir, C. (2019, September 26). Youth climate strikers threaten to boycott Royal Shakespeare Company over BP sponsorship. Retrieved from:

Taylor, M. (2019, October 2). Royal Shakespeare Company to end BP sponsorship deal. The Guardian. Retrieved from:

Thunberg, G. (2019). United Nations General Assembly Speech. Retrieved from

Uldam, J., & Vestergaard, A. (2015). Civic engagement and social media. Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan.

Weber, H. R. (2010, September 19). Blown-out BP well finally killed at bottom of Gulf. Boston.Com. Retrieved from:

Youth Letter to the Royal Shakespeare Company. (2019). Retrieved from:

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