Amazon or Red Sea: big stories, two approaches

Commercial ships, more often than not, can appear as pawns in the game
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By Jonathan Spencer
Crisis Communications Manager

We started with geopolitics and how maritime grapples with being caught up in leading stories and world events. Commercial ships, more often than not, can appear as pawns in the game.

So, what are we to say to the bigger story… and who should be saying it?

Consider a river-grounding under pilot. Consider this river being the Amazon. Consider this occurring three times in almost as many weeks… And this being in the same month as the global summit on climate change in Dubai was opening in optimism, with the UAE pledging 50 billion dollars in support of green financing and transitional initiatives. My goodness, a stage set for a perfect storm by any news editor’s judgement …Just parachute in Greta Thunberg!

Mercifully, we might say, the soft grounding, allision …grazing the rocky river bottom (which shouldn’t have been there, breathes a pilot in Portuguese, aware of X-metre draft) in each case – so far – did not involve any pollution. Perhaps there was just too many other strategic stories dominating December’s news agendas for these incidents to barely cut through. I mean, beyond the local circus and public anxiety, with maritime press catching up.

The Amazon River is reported to be at its lowest level for 120 years. Following three months without rain in the most populous Amazonas region that includes the city of Manaus, the river, at its confluence with the Rio Negro, had dropped four metres.

Any tanker or bulk carrier is going about its normal business, with a river pilot to assist navigation. These vessels, among hundreds transiting the river in any month; just routine traffic barely turning heads on any normal day on the river. But a ‘touch bottom’ incident occurs, and the concern is very present – it has to be owned.

Believe me, had a fuel tank ruptured, the second skin of a hull breached, the media is landed the perfect storm of a pollution story in the heart (I should say lungs) of the Amazon rain forest, in the middle of Dubai’s COP 28 jamboree.

In any near-miss pollution incident, there remains an obligation to be prepared for public interest. We do not need to say very much if the details are still unclear. But I suggest, a line to reassure the public that the shipping company is doing the right thing, is the bare minimum:

We are working with the local authorities to ensure all precautions are in place to mitigate against any environmental damage.”    

I saw three ships… December ‘twas the season. Yes, crises may have mirrored London buses – wait all day for one and then three appear (if you haven’t had the pleasure). After the third Amazon grounding, it felt like ground-hog day.

As the threat to shipping in the Red Sea increases, the Iranian-backed Houthi militia seems resolute in testing nerves and strategic patience. The US Navy has two battle groups in the region as other nations join the US-led Operation Prosperity Guardian. The coalition aims to deter the Yemeni rebel attacks on commercial shipping transiting the southern Red Sea region. The Houthi militia vows to continue its campaign in solidarity for Hamas and Palestinians in The Gaza Strip.

Commercial vessels, again just going about their business through one the busiest shipping lanes are, frankly, just in the way of another decades-long argument. But the news interest builds with intensity as world economies are impacted, the Houthi threat continues, and just how long does Iran face up to America?

The communications strategy is very different. The ship, manager, owner or operator isn’t seen as at fault. Most public opinion isn’t concerned with who owns what vessel. People just want their stuff; other people need essential medicines, food supplies and car parts to arrive.

So, we don’t rush in to respond. There isn’t the same obligation to the public or the media as stakeholders. But in any crisis response, there is always preparedness – the right form of words, such as:

We remain in contact with maritime security authorities who are investigating a hostile attack. You should direct any further questions to the US-led coalition.”

Not to downplay what may be a very dangerous series of events, or an alarming experience for the crew, the vessel owner and any P&I Club. But we don’t know what hit the vessel, what was fired, who fired it, where it was fired from, or why. It isn’t our expertise. It isn’t our politics. The Americans will already be aware. So the Americans – those who have the lead – are best speaking to the media, as we have seen in recent US CentCom press conferences from Bahrain. Theirs is the strategic bandwidth, and this lessens the specific focus on vessel and ship operator.

This isn’t about ignoring the media or inferring nothing significant happened. It’s about holding a line.

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