Oil palm giant Sime Darby Bhd has denied an allegation on the Sarawak Report website that it had "cultivated" and "influenced" a leading US economist to champion its activities.
The conglomerate insisted that it had not elicited favourable comments from Professor Jeffrey D Sachs, a sustainability advocate.
However, it admitted to having hosted Sachs at its Carey Island estates in 2008, as well as disbursing direct cash grants to Columbia University's prestigious Earth Institute, which the economist now helms.
Sime Darby further admitted having hired UK-based public relations firm FBC Media Ltd in 2007, along “with other brand and communications consultants to implement our strategic brand communications strategy”.
It terminated FBC’s services in November 2008 as a result of divergent views on certain issues.
"Accordingly, it was not for any 'illegal PR campaign' as alleged in the article... (we have) neither 'cultivated' nor 'influenced' Sachs to become a 'champion' for the group," Sime Darby said in an email response to Malaysiakini .
There has been no response, to date, to an email sent to Sachs for his comments.
Sime Darby argued that any statement Sachs may have made about the company in his appearances on FBC-produced television programmes were based on his expert knowledge.
"There was never any intention, stated, implicit or suggested, that FBC (should) embark on a 'greenwash' campaign to boost the company’s image," the email says.
The company said achieving sustainability has always been part of its corporate philosophy.
Sarawak Report had previously exposed FBC’s work in packaging television content that lauded the ‘virtues’ of Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak and Sarawak Chief Minister Abdul Taib Mahmud. Several global television networks have since refused to use such news-feeds.
'Visit was not a holiday'
Elaborating on its denial, Sime Darby said it had neither seduced nor courted Sachs with a 'holiday' to its Carey Island estates.
"The estates belong to Sime Darby Plantation. They are working estates and 77 percent of the island is planted with oil palm.
“While Carey Island is an excellent and working example of sustainable and best agricultural practices, a visit to Carey Island could never be described as a holiday by anyone."
It said Sachs had been invited to visit the estates on Aug 1, 2008, to view for himself the protocols and procedures employed by the company's "sustainable development of oil palm".
Sime Darby explained that misinformation about the industry has created a chasm between truth and fiction on best practices. Hence, it hosts regular meetings to engage with various stakeholders, to establish relevant facts.
“Sachs was one such person. There was never any intention to portray or use (him) as a champion, third party endorser or spokesperson."
The company also denied that it flew Sachs to Malaysia in a private jet.
"Sime Darby has no knowledge of (his) travel arrangements. If indeed he did travel by private jet, it was not at (our) expense. Sime Darby does not own a jet.”
On the US$500,000 grant to the Earth Institute, the company said this was to be disbursed over two years for consulting and other advisory services on the development of its sustainability framework and initiatives.
"The commitment to the Earth Institute is not part of any PR exercise and has not been used for publicity purposes by the group’s PR department,” it added.