Tucked beyond coastal horizons, the maritime world is often out of sight and out of mind.
Shipping, like all maritime industries, is in no way immune to the sea blindness condition.
Whatever romanticization the public once had with maritime odyssey or nautical conquest seems to have faded. In many circles, seafaring is now cast a mundane set of operational procedures, where offshore industries – shipping, fishing, mining, and energy – function behind a wall of public disinterest. Despite valiant PR efforts, maritime businesses have, to some extent, been complicit in accepting their silent role.
While avoiding the limelight isn’t inherently problematic, the current level of opacity can, at times, shroud the reality of maritime work. At the end of the day, something has to fill the vacuum and ocean industries are far from immune to juicy, drama-filled stories.
Herein lies one of the central communication issues: the public doesn’t really understand seafaring, but what they do know is often speculative or sensationalized. Narratives that focus on human interest will always stand out and shady activities can, all-to-often, appear as though they are the modus operandi for the maritime sector.
Take the claim, for instance, that criminals ‘know’ the seas better than authorities. At face value, this might seem outlandish, but after watching news clips of the infamous “murder-at-sea video”, it wouldn’t be farfetched to presume that vigilante justice runs as the status quo on the high seas.
Similar speculation arcs across the safety culture in shipping. Almost any major maritime casualty is sure to spark media attention that highlights the dark corners of the industry – including dubious business dealings, the exploitation of ‘legal loopholes’ and the prevalence of cost cutting measures. Not that any of this ‘background’ is necessarily related to the incident at-hand, but for the media, it can fill an informational void.
Within this communication culture, the public is far more likely to remember the dangerous conduct of the Costa Concordia captain than they are to acknowledge the industry’s innovative history that has made ocean-borne travel safer and more efficient.
The remoteness of the oceans doesn’t help. When a vessel goes ‘dark’ it is far too easy for journalists to claim it was avoiding sanctions or making an illegal transshipment. The public can’t see what happens and justifications for deactivating AIS are not typically provided unless questions are asked.
The point is that media coverage will naturally fade into the critical and calamitous, but that doesn’t mean maritime companies should let this be the public’s frame of reference. Reputational risks build when everyone is quiet.
It cannot be denied that drug trafficking, human smuggling and regulatory evasion thrive on the seas, but so do law abiding and socially responsible companies that strive to promote a fair and sustainable future.
Shipping, like all maritime industries, holds customs and storylines with the power to redefine public interest in the seas: the common language of navigation, the international partnership of trade, seafaring safety above politics. If the current camaraderie between Ukrainian and Russian seafarers is anything to go by, then shipping certainly has more to offer besides drama or silence.
At the end of the day, the tone of public interest will depend on how maritime industries use their human-centered stories. The media can always fill void with speculation.