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Public relations in the maritime world

Communicating the maritime message

Ben Pinnington, Managing Director of Polaris Media, shines a light on the need for better communication

Public relations is changing. The era of PR as a tactical tool, communications gloss or an add-on to marketing is over. Astute organisations now use PR to shape their strategic direction. PR today is as much about listening as it is about broadcasting a message. This is the reason that many organisations are now making PR part of their C-suite, to ensure they are in tune with their stakeholders as well as public opinion on issues affecting them. There is an understanding that if organisations reflect their stakeholders’ messages they are more likely to receive support from the people that matter most – and that is the ultimate goal of PR: to deepen relationships. However, PR has historically been an Achilles heel of the maritime industry. It is a paradox that, despite having some of the greatest stories to tell of any sector, many maritime companies prefer to stay out of the limelight. The low-profile approach today is in stark contrast to that of figures from maritime’s past whose names still reverberate, such as Columbus, Cook or Magellan. In recent times the maritime industry has produced few entrepreneurial figures to match the past or the likes of Musk, Jobs or Branson to inspire the public or fight in the corridors of power when influence is really needed – as with the chronic problem of seafarer welfare. There is an urgent need for the maritime industry to come together like a rising tide to improve the general standards of public relations. While the desire to be discreet may be well intentioned, it is an increasingly untenable approach in today’s media-dominated world where social media has given everyone a voice. Organisations now need to have clear, measurable PR plans aligned to their business plan objectives.  It sounds like common sense, but in my experience, it is not that common.

Deepwater Horizon burning in the Gulf of Mexico shortly before it sank, causing the worst oil spill in history, with serious damage to the marine environment and to livelihoods on the US Gulf coast. Photo: USCG / PD

A cautionary lesson in misjudging the mood of a crisis was delivered by BP after the Deepwater Horizon blowout in 2010. Its then CEO drew a media backlash when he described the spill as ‘tiny’ compared to the Gulf of Mexico, and said, ‘I’d like my life back’, appearing out of tune with the public affected. After the initial communications chaos, BP got its act together and led the way in using social media for the first time to help communicate in a crisis. Earlier this year, the weakness of maritime PR was again exposed by the Ever Given incident, which thrust maritime onto front pages worldwide. It was a reminder, as was the tragic Beirut Port explosion in August 2020, that for many maritime organisations the threat of crisis is constant. A stinging editorial in Lloyd’s List said the response to the Ever Given crisis saw ‘faceless’ shipping executives ‘hide in the shadows’, when there ‘was a unique opportunity to explain shipping’s key role as the economic backbone of world trade’.

Being prepared

While this was a complex crisis involving many different organisations and cultures, the latest media training says that you need to front up in a crisis. It is in a crisis that a company and its leaders can be seen for what they really stand for. A crisis well-handled should see an organisation’s reputation enhanced by an empathetic spokesperson sensitive to the human implications of the incident, giving informed updates and answering difficult questions. Where organisations so often go wrong is in seeming detached, cold or insensitive to the human impact of a crisis. Maritime organisations need to be aware how the low-profile approach can backfire. Ever Given was a wakeup call for the maritime sector. The pressure for a planned approach to crises, as well as for proactive PR and being more in touch with stakeholders, is only going to increase. The decarbonisation agenda is dragging the maritime industry out of its bubble into the blinding sunlight of the climate crisis debate. Maritime can now be pulled into the orbit of major influencers such as Sir David Attenborough, the Duke of Cambridge and Greta Thunberg, followed by the legions of intelligent young people inspired by them. A more positive example of maritime reaching the mainstream successfully was the building of the new research ship RRS Sir David Attenborough for the British Antarctic Survey.  We worked on this project, staging three press calls with Sir David which attracted massive media attention, with the national media descending on Cammell Laird shipyard. The campaign also drew headlines with the Boaty McBoatface saga, which saw the naming competition take on a life of its own on social media when the ‘joke’ name caught the popular imagination. But the National Environmental Research Council, the ship’s owner, managed the storm with good humour, enabling the story to reach a much bigger audience than could originally have been imagined.

However, decarbonisation puts massive pressure on maritime businesses. This is not the soft world of corporate social responsibility (CSR), where companies did good things, that were not always fundamental to operations, and expected praise. The advent of Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) criteria in place of CSR creates much a tougher game, particularly in maritime finance, where the Poseidon Principles have been signed up to by lending institutions responsible for $158 billion, roughly half of global ship finance. The signatories demand that shipowners meet the IMO targets for their fleets, or their ships risk not being mortgaged.

New expectations

Making Waves: PR strategies to transform your maritime business

This kind of measure is squeezing the maritime industry where it hurts – and it shows that the old ways of focusing shareholder value are being replaced by the expectation of a meaningful contribution to society and the planet. Now, having an authentic purpose matters. In this new, harsher climate it is worth remembering the definition of PR: PR is about reputation, the result of what you do, what you say and what others say about you. By far the most important element of this statement is the ‘what you do’. If an organisation says it’s going green, it has to show it’s doing it – the era of purpose-washing and greenwashing is over. With the increasing profile of decarbonisation this could be the epochal moment when maritime throws off its shackles and shines in the mainstream, showing the world it can lead the way in AI, green energy and digitisation. But if maritime does not tell its story boldly it will continue to be eclipsed by the likes of tech. Too many maritime companies are stuck in the past, re-engineering diesel ships when they should be reverse-engineering the future of alternative fuels. Given that the cost of decarbonisation in maritime has been pitched at up to $1.9 trillion there is certainly an incentive.

Social media

One way of highlighting maritime’s success stories is via social media. The legendary troubleshooter Sir John Harvey-Jones once said, ‘The main activities a company chairman should concern himself with are strategic planning and public relations.’ Today that extends business leaders responsibilities to at least overseeing their organisation’s social media. However, one of the big problems in maritime is that executives are not embracing social media enough. For example, there are now a staggering 730 million LinkedIn users, with half logging in every day, but fewer than 10 million are sharing content. Building strong relationships with the mainstream media is still vital, too.  It is still important to get to know journalists and stage tours to build trust and relationships. If you do not give the media a chance to understand your organisation, there is little point complaining about sea-blindness. With stronger media relationships, when a negative story threatens, the company is more likely to be given a sympathetic hearing.

The world has become a very noisy place, and it has become harder than ever to penetrate that wall of sound. The maritime industry needs to find its voice on the issues that matter most. These are not the times to be quietly hiding, tapping on the doors of government and the media with a sponge. It is time for maritime to find its champions, so the immensity of the sector is heard, appreciated and acted upon.

Ben Pinnington’s new book Making Waves: PR Strategies to Transform Your Maritime Business, was published by Rethink Press in June 2021.