The world is drenched in unease. From the Russia-Ukraine conflict to Iranian-American tensions, 2022 has had it all.
As a global industry, shipping sits within a sea of competing agendas. At one stage or another, maritime companies will inevitably find themselves in an awkward position.
Consider the vessels that have been stuck in Odessa. Just by calling into port, they became trapped in a war zone – with no warning, no preparation and no plan. While many western companies were quick to condemn Russia, there were several that struggled to publicly comment. Some had to weigh the fact that a proportion of their workforce is Russian. Others were entangled in contracts with Russian-linked businesses – many of them supported by western governments. And many were concerned about the knock-on effect when their ships eventually call at Russian ports in the future. Needless to say, the web of pressures has created numerous headaches.
But political road-blocks don’t need to involve military might to raise hairs. Whether it be Port State Control or operational incidents, shipping is an easy outlet for political posturing. Sitting idle isn’t productive and surrendering to foreign authorities is terrifying. It turns out ships are great leverage.
Stuck between a rock and a regime, it may feel impossible to navigate between interests. But, if done well, proactive communication has the potential to calm nerves, maintain control, and expedite vessel or crew release.
So how do you create a comms strategy that will tackle the elephant but won’t poke the bear?
For starters, it’s important to understand that political disruptions are not a shipping story. Rather, they are a sign of wider tensions. As such, companies should let governments and diplomats take the lead in communicating. That doesn’t mean avoiding the topic altogether, but it does mean acting as a supporter rather than a flag bearer.
But what should your company focus on when discussing sensitive incidents?
At the end of the day, your narrative will largely depend on what happened and who was involved. But as a general guide, you can consider the following factors:
- Where appropriate, ensure the human element is front and center. During a seizure or vessel detention, the top priority needs to be the crew’s welfare. Even during more trivial interference, it is vital the crew don’t feel abandoned.
- Look to the future. Nobody likes uncertainty or discord. Moving away from the past and focusing on your hope for resolution is a good way to bridge across different interest groups.
- Collaboration: talk about your willingness to work with relevant governments and authorities. If done in a balanced way, collaboration can show your company is sensible, caring and cooperative.
- Direct attention to your company’s legitimate record. You can even cite your compliance with laws or regulations as a way to show your commitment to recognized standards.
- Avoid politics: refrain from using words or phrases that will provoke ongoing tensions, reference historical controversy, or highlight socially sensitive topics. Instead, try to use language that will be relatable, familiar and encouraging to those involved.
- Recognise the limits of your power. Sometimes it is better to say nothing at all, than provide a risky response.
Just because you’re thrown into a firestorm doesn’t mean you have to apply pressure. Your role, first and foremost, is to help resolve the situation. Your greatest chance for success relies on winning the hearts of your audience.