The vessels dragged into a bigger story

In these cases, seemingly ‘minor’ incidents can get blown out of all proportion…
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By Edward Ion

An integral part of the training Navigate Response delivers is teaching clients when to expect attention from journalists following an incident.

The all-encompassing, instantaneous nature of social media means your vessel can be front page news in no time.

So, we advise that senior management and crisis response teams should be ready to respond at all times. It is hard to second guess if your incident is going to be top of the news or completely ignored.

There are several factors which determine the extent of news coverage.

One simple rule of thumb is that if it’s a ‘slack news day’, your seemingly minor incident can be all over websites and the lead item on the evening news bulletin.

Other factors include if there are ‘brand names’ involved, or the incident has taken place in a visible, high-profile area such as the English Channel or the Singapore Straits.

In these cases, seemingly ‘minor’ incidents can get blown out of all proportion by media anxious to fill air-time and space in the never- ending 24-hour news cycle.

Another more intangible factor is if your incident is part of a bigger story or an aspect of a wider geo-political situation which is already grabbing world headlines.

A good example of when shipping gets dragged into wider global stories would be the case of economic migrants rescued at sea. Merchant ships are obligated to go to the aid of desperate people often in unsafe dinghies or small craft: the rescuing vessel becomes the story – and not always in a positive light.

Or the time earlier this year when more than 70 dry bulk ships carrying coal got caught up in a political spat between China and Australia which led to China banning such cargoes.

These are times when the media quickly turns its attention to the easiest target. The most visible and accessible part of the story is the physical presence of the vessel at sea or docked somewhere, caught up in the middle of a much bigger dispute.

For the chasing media pack, ‘action shots’ of the vessel itself can form the basis of a good news story. But what news editors really want is the eyewitness ‘colour’ which makes a complex and nuanced story more human and therefore accessible to a general news audience.

That means seafarers are the most obvious point of contact for hungry news hounds seeking the human angle and emotion from a story which may be hard to illustrate otherwise.

We have seen an increasing amount of news coverage of the shipping industry caught up in a much bigger story: the COVID-19 pandemic is the most prominent example of how shipping gets dragged into a global narrative.

But we are dealing increasingly with journalists working on ‘big picture’ stories who demand the “route one” fresh angle on that story: and that means cornering seafarers caught up in events way beyond their control or understanding.

Our advice is: make sure all your seafarers have some kind of training on how to handle media if your vessels are caught in the middle of a big picture news story.

It is inevitable that seafarers are going to be approached by media while doing their job: this is a trend we saw a few years ago and COVID-19 has intensified this situation.

Communication in these situations is always a complex process. Even if your vessel is an innocent bit-part player in a story – or even playing the role of the ‘good guys’ in a rescue, the media will seek angles to the story which may not be in your interest.

Our advice is to resist the temptation to use these incidents as ‘PR opportunities’ and instead keep communication factual, concise and professional.

Give praise and thanks when they are due; but don’t issue gushing thank-you notes to endless lists of incident protagonists as if it was some kind of Oscar night celebration.

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