Public perception: We’re all in it together

The crisis communications business – my business – is sometimes accused of putting lipstick on a pig.
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By Dustin Eno
Managing Director, Navigate Response

Next time you’re at an industry event and someone smugly tells you that they don’t care about the media because “it doesn’t really matter” don’t laugh politely or smile uncomfortably. Instead, tell them to step up their game, because their recklessness will impact you, everyone in the room and indeed everyone in our industry.

Within our industry, we know which companies exemplify the best of our sector, and which play fast and loose with safety, the environment and the wellbeing of their crews. However, most people don’t make this distinction. The problem isn’t unique to shipping.

If there’s a salmonella outbreak traced to one farm’s lettuce, lettuce sales across the board decline.

If one airline’s planes start crashing, we feel less safe flying with any carrier.

If one shipping company makes a mess (literally or figuratively), we assume the industry is rotten.

Guidance on media response and preparedness in Tanker Management and Self-Assessment (TMSA) and the soon to be released Dry-BMS have made a significant difference, but there is still a long way to go.

Even the best companies may occasionally have incidents and they will be judged as yet another example of an appalling industry unless they take the time to communicate clearly, caringly and effectively.

Too many companies still assume that they’ll be judged by what they do. This is wrong. Companies are judged by what they’re seen to do.

I recently made a pitch to a shipping company with a mixed fleet of nine vessels. The company has no crisis communications plan and has never had any relationship with an external crisis communications provider. Throughout the pitch the younger members of the team were nodding along, however, the senior decision maker was looking wholly unconvinced. Part way through he said to me: “Our company always does a great job and we work with the very best people. If we were a poor operator, we’d need PR people to make us look good, but we don’t need to worry about looking good – we are good.”

The perception of this senior executive is not uncommon, but it is incomplete. He’d be partly right if we lived in a world where we only ever needed to worry about the perceptions of those within our own industry – those who take the time and have the background to understand the details and intricacies of an incident response. However, this is not the reality we live in. The perceptions of people who have little or no background knowledge about our industry and those who will not investigate much further than a headline can have a significant impact on our industry and our operations. We need to be communicating with them rather than expecting them to figure out for themselves that a great clean-up or salvage operation is being undertaken.

The crisis communications business – my business – is sometimes accused of putting lipstick on a pig. That sometimes happens. But attempts to dress up a bad response usually fail. Apologies for completely distorting the metaphor, but crisis communication is better thought of as a great photographer emphasising the beauty of an attractive model. The model was attractive without the photographer, but it’s the photographer who ensures others see this beauty.

Crisis communications and PR should not be seen as a way to cover up wrongdoing. We have a rule with all our clients: We will never help you to lie. But no matter how big the mess, actions can always be taken to rectify or mitigate the harm – most of crisis communications should focus on demonstrating what you’re doing to fix the situation.

Lord Hewart, the Lord Chief Justice of England in 1924 said: “Justice must not only be done, but must also be seen to be done”. It is the same with salvage work and oil spill clean-up. The oil must not only be cleaned up, it must also be seen to be cleaned up.

If our industry more consistently took the time to show their work, then salvage and clean-up operations would more often get the credit they deserve. Public perceptions of our industry would be more aligned with our own positive perceptions of the maritime sector.

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