In mid-March this year, the M/V Ever Forward, a 12,000 TEU container ship grounded in the Chesapeake Bay shortly after it departed the Port of Baltimore.
Fortunately, the grounding in seven meters of water did not cause any injuries and had no effect whatsoever on the shipping channel traffic. However, the vessel was carrying around 5,000 shipping containers with customers awaiting their delivery in ports further north on the US East Coast.
Due to the severity of the grounding, a Unified Command comprised of the US Coast Guard, the State of Maryland Department of the Environment and the vessel’s owners (represented by Witt O’Brien’s) was created to coordinate the re-floating of the ship. Shortly thereafter, a Joint Information Centre (JIC) was formed with media representatives from each of the UC members.
Visible from the Maryland shore and located near the major US media markets of Baltimore, Maryland and Washington, D.C., the Ever Forward’s situation quickly became local, then national and international news. Navigate Response (NR), a wholly owned subsidiary of Witt O’Brien’s was engaged by the ship’s owners to represent their interests within the JIC. Media coverage was significant and required immediate and careful management by the JIC.
From the beginning of the crisis, it was decided that the Coast Guard would serve as the primary media spokesperson and point of contact, with the Maryland Department of the Environment serving as back-up when Coast Guard spokespersons were unavailable. Following our recommendation, the ship’s owner deferred media-facing efforts to the two government entities.
Navigate Response worked closely with other JIC members, ensuring all information being discussed with the media (as well as all messaging) remained accurate, as complete as possible and continuously updated. Since the ship’s owners held contractual relationships with all the services providing consulting and on-site support for the refloating effort, NR established a media protocol with all the key contractors to refer all media enquiries to NR and the JIC. This protocol ensured that all parties engaged in the recovery effort spoke with a single voice using the carefully prepared messaging. A story as interesting and accessible as this one demanded this level of control to ensure the media focus remained on the recovery effort rather than any number of misguided directions the story could have taken if these controls had not been in place.
The family relationship between Witt O’Brien’s, which was serving as the recovery effort’s incident commander, and NR proved valuable as the refloating operation was changing frequently and significantly. This close working ensured information was delivered to the JIC, and on to the media, quickly, efficiently, and accurately. NR also supported the vessel owner’s interests on the JIC, ensuring that any information related to the company was handled in a sensitive manner, protecting the company’s hard-earned positive corporate reputation. NR included statements emphasising the company’s commitment to supporting the recovery effort and the UC in any way possible, stressing the company’s appreciation of all regulatory and state authorities involved. This blend of Public Information Officer and reputation management strategy is unique to crisis response in the US However, it is often misunderstood or ignored by companies unaccustomed to managing communications during a crisis in this region.
The recovery operation required constant monitoring and message revision as the effort was continually evolving. Initial emphasis was focused on pulling the vessel free with tugs. When that didn’t work, an aggressive dredging operation was undertaken. Once the dredge was completed, tugs were tried again. When that attempt failed, additional dredging to the full depth of the ship’s 13 meter draft was completed and a winch barge was floated out to the site to supplement the tugs. When that attempt failed, it was determined that the last, best hope was to unload 500 of the ship’s containers – a dangerous and difficult process. Finally, after five long weeks of attempts, the ship was freed from its grounded position and returned to the Port of Baltimore for a thorough inspection of its hull and the reloading of the 500 containers. Shortly after, the ship was back on its planned course up the Eastern Seaboard.
Throughout the course of the vessel’s recovery, questions related to:
- the timeline of the effort
- the potential impact of the grounding and recovery to the environment
- the actual cause of the grounding, against speculation from a variety of sources
Again, the closely aligned JIC had the established media response protocol that required the channeling of all enquiries directly to them. This level of management ensured the JIC was able to constantly assert that the Maryland Department of the Environment was fully engaged in the recovery process and was continuously monitoring the immediate vicinity of the recovery for any sign of environmental impact and quickly combat any false rumours or inaccuracies.
Arrangements were even made to transport all dredged material to nearby Poplar Island where it was used as landfill to benefit the Paul S. Sarbanes Ecosystem Restoration project. This effort demonstrated the commitment of Unified Command and the vessel’s owners to taking all measures to minimise any impact to the local environment.
Throughout the course of the recovery effort, social media played a significant role in amplifying coverage of the event. From the constant posting of unauthorised drone footage, to video shot from passing ships and recreational vessels, to helicopter and fixed-wing aircraft flyovers, every aspect of the recovery was published and accessible by all online.
As with any crisis the visible, ‘expert’ bloggers, podcasters and social media commentators used the event to promote their own personal brands and attract subscribers to their channels. From the outset, the JIC recommended that the UC should avoid all engagement with these individuals and limit its engagement to credible and established local, national and international trade media. By building and maintaining relationships with these established channels, the JIC could establish a level of trust and mutual cooperation with reputable press and broadcast media, and so able to reach the most important stakeholders quickly, accurately and efficiently. Despite the inevitable handful of inaccuracies, coverage throughout the event proved to be exceptionally accurate, balanced and fair.
- If you become engaged in a crisis in the US that evolves into a Unified Command-directed operation, ensure your communications simultaneously support the Unified Command, protect your reputation and enable your ability to resume business as usual as quickly as possible. You will need to engage an agency that is adept and trained in the Incident Command System approach to emergency response that is now at the core of all serious maritime crises in the US.
- This agency should also understand the need to defend your company’s longstanding reputation throughout the crisis. Poorly managed relationships with the UC and the JIC will result in ongoing trust issues, limiting your ‘voice’ in JIC strategy decisions and messaging, and an inability to maintain a strong role in the communications process.
- In a UC-directed response, companies that stray in their communications beyond the established JIC messaging and protocols can seriously damage their credibility and trust with the very regulatory organisations that can be their best allies during a crisis.
- Advance preparation is critical to communications during any crisis. Catalogue all necessary information about your equipment and operations and make it accessible during a crisis. Practice a crisis communications response to a credible scenario on an annual basis to ensure your team is familiar with roles. Identify and train several spokespersons who could be called upon during a crisis to engage with media. Maintain the capability to monitor media coverage of a crisis in real-time to ensure you have a vital overview and analysis of media activity throughout.
- Establish internal crisis communications processes, roles and responsibilities now. It is too late to do so once a crisis begins.
- Be certain you have the capabilities to communicate during a crisis through general news media channels as well as social platforms.
- Understand the benefit of working closely with your appointed response firm serving as your Qualified Individual (QI) in the US. Learn how to best work with them during a crisis to ensure the most accurate information possible is consistently conveyed to the JIC members.