Kidnap and piracy: communicating clearly in a crisis

Professional negotiators won’t hold the phone for you, but they will offer advice…
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By Tom Adams

The scourge of piracy and maritime kidnap is not a new phenomenon, it is a continuing global problem causing the most discouragement. With the continued prevalence of these attacks, it’s critical to have strong communications management procedures in place.

Contrary to popular belief, negotiating with the kidnappers is not the greatest communication challenge. Professional negotiators won’t hold the phone for you, but they will offer advice and support on every facet of the complex process: selecting a communicator, deciding on a financial strategy, offering advice on drop-offs and handovers, and countless other decisions that shape the conclusion of the incident.

The real communications challenges lie in the other parts of your stakeholder map. A good stakeholder map will tell you who to communicate with, when to communicate, what they should be told and who is responsible for telling them. In any incident, you may be dealing with port authorities, owners, managers and local agents, but in a kidnap you also need to account for the families of victims, local authorities, international authorities, government representatives, intelligence agencies and of course the media – local, national and international.

Ensuring we communicate properly with all these audiences from the outset is key to success. The most serious consequence of not doing so is putting hostages in unnecessary danger.
So, what can be done to ensure communications functions drive toward a common goal?

Coordinate your messaging: When there are updates to be communicated, make sure that your audience receives the same news, at the same time, with consistent points of contact. Media updates should go to all journalists covering the story at the same time. Family liaison updates should do the same.

Communicate clearly: Leave little room for interpretation or ambiguity. Information is scarce, so be clear with what you do know, and what you don’t know.

Don’t ignore social and digital platforms: Everyone is now a self-publisher. Blogs and social media profiles all have the potential to damage your strategy, monitor them closely from the outset to identify any potential issues early.

Don’t be afraid of the why?: Inevitably, you will be asked at various points why certain information is not available or cannot be shared. We should not underestimate the importance of the word ‘because’, followed by valid reasoning. Justification arising as the result of frank and honest conversations is necessary and will build trust with all your stakeholders.

Reasoning, rationale and empathy are some of the few tools we have to combat emotional reaction – a lesson we should remember in all our crisis communications practice.

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