Case Study – Solomon Trader communications

Odds beyond the control of most were in play
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By Matthew Watson
Network Partner, AUSTRALIA

You get used to a familiar line of questioning after working in the maritime crisis communications space for many years. Why did it take so long to mobilise resources, to stop and remove leaking oil, to move the casualty? And why can’t you give specific answers now? Those questions are highly predictable from journalists, but also from many other stakeholders such as government decision makers and community groups who often have limited understandings of the complexities and timeframes that surround many maritime salvage responses.

That was certainly the case when the bauxite-carrying MV Solomon Trader grounded near a World Heritage reef area off Rennell Island in the Solomon Islands during an unexpected gale event in February last year.

As is often the case in maritime salvage responses, odds beyond the control of most were in play, and it was almost impossible to provide clear answers in the early phases, mainly because things were moving and changing so quickly. Yes, a tug was secured to pull the vessel free, yes, a timely re-float appeared possible, but no, that didn’t happen once a cyclone roared in and pushed the vessel further onto the reef, resulting in hull and engine room damage and a galaxy of other problems. What might have been a simple extraction job now required all the cavalry of a major salvage operation.

Several more factors impacted and delayed the response, including the vessel’s power being lost. The remote and hazardous location made it difficult to secure local resources and it was time-consuming bringing in resources from other locations.

Personnel and specialised equipment were flown in from Australia, New Zealand, Vanuatu, Singapore, the United States and Europe (this was never going to be a five-minute job). Limitations of a local airstrip meant that heavy equipment, including pumps and generators, had to complete the final part of their journey by sea – and that certainly took time. Inclement weather made it difficult and at times impossible to access the vessel. Conditions often made it too dangerous for external underwater inspections – a key requirement ahead of salvage operations progressing in earnest. Another setback was the vessel being ransacked by some locals once the crew was evacuated, resulting in on-board resources that may have assisted with the early response being removed or damaged.

It was important that such factors were spelt out to enquiring journalists and other stakeholders, and they were, meaning a fuller picture as to why things were ‘taking time’ could be appreciated. The vessels protection & indemnity insurer and owner articulated that everything that could be done was being done. There was timely remorse towards environmental and community impacts, backed up with a commitment to work with and support the local community – things that usually go a long way to demonstrating transparency and engendering good will when emotions are high.

It was of little surprise to those who know the maritime salvage game – but news to so many others – that that shifting fuel oil and other liquids would be one the most difficult tasks, and things were called exactly as they were. Some six hundred tonnes of fuel oil were carefully pumped to higher and safer tanks, ahead of being transferred to a barge. Smaller amounts that regrettably leaked into the coastal waters were controlled with booms and clean-up operations were arranged for patches where oil made it to shore, under the recommendations and guidance of international oil spill experts.

No, the overall event wasn’t a happy moment for many, particularly locals, but with good communication, most audiences recognised the difficulties and challenges in making good of the situation. The base messages were:

  1. We acknowledge this is bad
  2. We express remorse
  3. We’re doing everything practically possible to fix things up

It may pay to ask what you would do if that was your vessel? What crisis plan would you work to? Could you get a basic holding statement out quickly to satiate media demand for information – and do you understand that almost any statement in the early stages is often better than radio silence? Would you have the resources to cope with a flood of media calls? Would you be able to take control of public messaging, to get on the front-foot, to get credible facts out there? Who would appear on camera if required? Are they media trained? Could they cope with aggressive questioning? Remember, it only takes a small stumble or slip to lose credibility with external audiences, especially when your reputation is already on the line. It pays to be ready in advance, as the team at Navigate Response knows so well.

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