Three years on: Lessons from maritime crisis communications

8 April 2016
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Navigate Response director Bill Lines looks at the lessons learnt in setting up and running a global crisis communications network for the shipping industry.

Navigate Response signed up its first shipowning client in April 2013. Three years later, we’re looking after a fleet of nearly 3000 ships, running a network of responders in 33 cities around the world and responding to a new issue almost every week.

So what have I learnt in this time?

You couldn’t make it up

When we were first approached by a shipping company to manage its crisis communications issues, I ran through the sorts of issues I thought we could expect to face. Sinkings, pollution, groundings, environmental protests, death and injury were top of the list. What I could never have predicted were some of issues we’ve actually dealt with. The client’s vessel at the centre of the hunt for a missing Malaysian airliner in the Indian Ocean; the client whose ship and crew were falsely accused of being part of an international drug and arms smuggling ring; the tanker that lost its anchor and nearly destroyed a marina full of millionaire’s yachts; the junior officer who was arrested having shot a port worker while testing out his new air rifle. The challenges that shipping companies face daily are quite incredible and can never be predicted.

You need a network

Having a local presence on the ground is very important. Someone who knows the local media, can work with the local authorities, speaks the language and understands the complexities of the maritime industry is key in a major incident. Backed up by a senior team in London and Singapore, our local people are able to help ensure that the client’s side of the story is told in a way that makes sense.

You need to sleep

A big crisis will go on for days – possibly weeks. It will stretch you and your team to the limits. It is critical that your team is big enough to cope and that people are able to rest. We switch between our London and Singapore offices to ensure 24/7 coverage.

Training is important for everyone

Training is a big part of what we do at Navigate. We ensure that our clients’ staff, from the CEO to the company receptionist, understand what their public facing roles are in a major incident. But it is also just as important for the Navigate team to be trained in working with the client. By exercising and practicing together, the teams feel more comfortable with each-other, know what to expect and are able to work much more effectively together in times of crisis.

People don’t always realise that they’re facing a crisis

All too often a crisis is a slow burner and those at the centre of it don’t realise that they’re in the middle of a major media story until it’s too late. Our role is to ensure that early steps are taken to ensure that the seemingly minor incident doesn’t become a media storm.

You need a plan

You can’t respond to a crisis if you haven’t got a tried and tested plan. A good crisis plan should have a clear and comprehensive section on dealing with the reputational issues of an emergency. What are the procedures for dealing with the media? Who will act as spokesperson? How should enquiries be handled? Who are the company’s key stakeholders and how are they best reached?

People are obsessed with their phones

Whilst I knew that social media is a big part of many peoples’ lives, until I began systematically analysing social media channels in the wake of our first major disaster, I hadn’t appreciated just how much time people spend glued to a screen and how much uninformed comment there is out there.  In fact a relatively small number of people become key influencers in any situation.  Irrespective of whether or not they can really offer any insight, their views are widely shared.  For anyone looking to have an impact on the narrative surrounding their company, they need to understand who the key influencers are and reach out to them.

The next three years will see us learning more lessons, responding to even stranger incidents and adapting to new technologies that have yet to be invented. In crisis communications, it’s always about being prepared to respond to the phone call you never expected.

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