Communicating in crisis: piracy, kidnap and the importance of communicating

3 October 2019
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There are few incidents more feared by a crisis management team (CMT) than a kidnapping. It is worth considering for a few moments why this is the case. After all, kidnapping is an extremely rare event – it is likely most shipping companies will never experience any such event. 

Kidnappings, and events like them, are often referred to as ‘special’ risk incidents, and for this, there are good reasons. It is precisely because they are rare that they are difficult to manage. Few companies or individuals sitting on CMTs understand the process of a kidnapping, or even the likely result of such an incident. It is also often at the bottom of the list of incidents for which our industry prepares, with collisions, spills and fire all much more common threats. Often, there are so many ‘unknown unknowns’ in a kidnap that decision making, and communicating, becomes incredibly difficult.

Kidnaps are ongoing crisis incidents. If your grain cargo has been contaminated by mould, heat or condensation – while there are obvious challenges (loss of profit, angry customers) – the ‘crisis’ is over. It’s happened. When CMTs are activated to deal with a kidnap, often the incident is just beginning. The CMT is not just managing the fallout from an incident, they are also managing the incident itself.

What’s more, the decisions the CMT make have a tangible impact on the incident. This includes the safety and wellbeing of the hostages, the mental health and resilience of the CMT members, and ultimately, the reputation of the company. In such scenarios, communicating effectively can become immensely difficult.

The communications aspect of a kidnapping can be vast. In our industry, this is particularly true. Due to the complex nature of ownership and operations, maritime incidents often have more stakeholders than almost any other type of case. Even understanding who is responsible to lead on these cases in the early ‘golden hours’ of an incident is key. Resolving this early will ensure you can hit the ground running when responding.

Some of the stakeholders that could require communicating with include: families of the victims, crew who have not been kidnapped, wider employees of the company, customers of your vessel, crewing agencies, investors, the board of directors, local authorities, international authorities, flag states and, not least, the media. Then, of course, there are the kidnappers themselves, one of their initial demands inevitably being, ‘do not communicate with anyone else about this matter’.

Knowing what to say, when to say it, and who should say it is often something that can be planned. It’s best to use a stakeholder map to track these key audiences. Communicating with kidnappers is something that you may never have planned on doing, but specialist kidnap response agencies will often appear on the scene to provide second-by-second advice on this intricacy. However, messaging to affected loved ones and investors can most certainly be planned for, ensuring these key stakeholders are not left in the dark.

Finally, if you find yourself managing a kidnapping incident, prepare for the long haul. While global incident rates are falling, and it’s now uncommon to see the durations of kidnaps that characterised the height of the East African crisis, cases can extend into the weeks and months. This is particularly true in regions of high impunity, like the Gulf of Guinea, where maritime gangs operate relatively freely.

Remember, the tempo is set by the kidnappers. They have the time, we have the watches.


Tom Adams

Crisis Response Manager

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