The Motor City to Maritime – 8 Mile, and then some

A mere 10-minute drive from my home would take you to the front door of Ford Motor Company’s global headquarters
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By Chetan Desai
Director (Asia), Navigate Response

Growing up in the suburbs of Detroit, Michigan, the centre of the U.S. automobile industry, I was fully immersed in car culture. A mere 10-minute drive from my home would take you to the front door of Ford Motor Company’s global headquarters. Drive a little further, and you are at the gates of General Motors and Chrysler. Together, these three companies are commonly referred to as the Big Three of American automotive manufacturing. From hot rods and muscle cars to family and friends, you would be hard-pressed to find someone who is not a ‘gearhead’ or part of the Big Three in some way. I always assumed I would follow the same path.

Having a keen interest in communications, marketing, and public relations from early on, I obtained a BBA in Marketing from the University of Michigan-Dearborn. Upon graduation, I assumed I would join the next generation of automotive communications and PR professionals. I was wrong.

How I managed to go from the Motor City to spending the last 14 years in the Lion City working in maritime communications for the likes of the Panama Registry, AET Tankers, Eastern Pacific Shipping, and currently as the newly appointed Managing Director of Asia for Navigate Response is a story for another time. For now, I can share how things were back then in the epicentre of American car manufacturing compared to what’s happening today in the maritime world.

Much like the maritime industry, the automotive industry is cyclical. Two decades ago, when times were good for cars, you would see significant investments in people, production, innovation, and technology. The ripple effect of these investments was profound. Local economies flourished, exciting new products were launched, and environmental efficiencies took centre stage. The same can be said for the maritime industry. Segment by segment, when charter rates are high, we see an increase in the orderbook, rapid sales and purchase activity, and a commitment to decarbonisation. Unfortunately, the exact opposite is true during downtimes for both.

Fast-forward to today, and neither the automotive nor maritime industry has the luxury of riding boon times to drive sustainability agendas. IMO 2030, IMO 2050, the Paris Agreement, and COP 28 demand that change happen now. However, it’s not just regulations pushing the agenda. It is also the right thing to do for environmental conservation and the benefit of future generations.

That’s why, despite their contrasting domains of land and sea, the automotive and maritime industries share a common goal of zero emissions. To ensure these targets are met, EVs and hybrids for cars, alternative marine fuels, and emission-lowering technologies for ships must be invested in today, regardless of economic conditions.

Luckily, shipping and car companies share a powerful resource that will help them get there– their people. In my experience across the US and Asia, these two industries have the most passionate, brilliant, and dedicated employees. Getting to zero will be filled with challenges, heartache, and failure. However, both industries have experienced setbacks and bounced back stronger each time. They were able to do so because of the people and communities that support these two industries.

While car and shipping companies invest heavily in emission-lowering solutions and promote their efforts through various PR campaigns, the real heroes can be their already passionate people. Creating brand ambassadors that advocate your company’s efforts is a hidden superpower. Giving them content to share on their social media channels and talking points to discuss on a grassroots level will ensure your efforts are not going unnoticed. Doing this is relatively easy and inexpensive if you have a communications team in place, whether it’s in-house, an agency or both.

A workforce that is versed in communications is equally important when things don’t go your way. Whether it’s a car recall or an incident on a ship, it’s critical for your team to know what to say, and what not to say, online and to journalists to ensure the goodwill and brand equity you worked hard to build stays intact.

Communicating effectively in good times and bad is paramount. Training people to do this will pay dividends regardless of whether they’re talking about a car or a ship. It will help companies build and protect brands, maintain stakeholder relationships, and mitigate any reputational fallout from an incident.

Much like investing in zero emissions, investing in training your people on how to communicate is the right thing to do both on land and at sea.


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