When a maritime emergency occurs, everyone involved is usually pushed out of their comfort zone. The priorities when there is an oil spill or another serious maritime incident is containment, the safety of those involved and minimising environmental damage.

In the heat of a crisis it can be easy to take the wrong approach to information and stakeholder management – or simply forget about them, creating a dangerous information vacuum.

In a digital world information can spread globally within seconds and opinions are formed very quickly. And once they are formed, they are difficult to change.

If initial opinions are negative the reputation of the ship, rig owners, operators, charterers or managers can be affected and have an impact on eventual compensation. By proactively engaging with the media and – where appropriate – shaping social media conversations companies should aim to control the agenda and direct attention to the issues they want to talk about.

Social media and smart phones have changed the way maritime incidents are reported. Four decades after the introduction of the first mobile phone, almost every developed country has at least 90 percent mobile phone penetration and almost all of these are smart phones capable of taking photographs and recording, then emailing it or posting it on social media.

Every crisis and incident can be and probably will be filmed, recorded and broadcast. Social media is no longer just user generated – it is publisher driven and the publishers can be anywhere – on the shore, on another vessel and on board vessels or rigs.

Whether companies are ready or not, social media spreads the story, and bad news travels quickly. Research shows that more than a quarter of crises spread to international media within an hour and over two thirds within 24 hours. A global survey revealed that 51% of journalists report they would be unable to do their job without social media and that two thirds of journalists spend up to two hours a day on social media.

There are a number of recent examples where maritime incidents have been recorded and shared in real time as they have happened via social media. These include the containerships MV Tolten and Hamburg Bay which spectacularly collided in the Port of Karachi in March 2018. The tanker Vitaspirit which crashed into a historic harbourside mansion on the shores of Istanbul’s Bosporus Strait a month later.

Another example of the power of social media is the tragic and viral story of Filipino deck cadet Kristoffer Galorio who went missing on BW Oak, a very large gas carrier off Honolulu in late December 2018.

A sea and air search was launched but was called off after 40 hours. On 25 January 2019 his distraught mother posted an emotive message on Facebook, which ended with the plea: “Please help or share this message to obtain justice for our son who is a seafarer.”

The post was shared 742,000 times and viewed 18.6 million times in the first day.

In the Philippines the post attracted the attention of maritime industry and overseas worker organisations, received widespread television and print media attention, was mentioned in the Philippino congress and even resulted in an appeal to the country’s President.

In total that one post resulted in more than 67 million views across YouTube, Twitter and Facebook.

So, what can we learn from this?

Just as it is important to prepare for incidents like oil spills by having a communication plan so everyone knows the procedure they should follow; it is also vital to have a social media strategy and social media protocols in place on your vessels and for your employees.

It is the responsibility of senior management to put this strategy in place to manage – as much as possible – issues such as:

  • The use of mobile phones on deck
  • Posting onboard activity on social media
  • Instructions on phone use during incidents
  • Wifi during a crisis on board – do you turn it off?
  • Having social monitoring systems in place and protocols on when and when not to respond
  • Fully integrating online platforms into the overall crisis response – and ensuring consistency of message across every channel.

There is one overriding rule that companies should follow when communicating during an issue or crisis. It’s called the pecking order or PEC. People is for people, and concern for those affected should always come first in all communication.  E is for environment, which should come second, and C is for company – which companies should emphasise is less important than people and the environment.

Case study

On the morning of March 31, 2018 an oil spill in Balikpapan Bay off the island of Borneo ignited, creating a large fireball, killing five fishermen and sending thick black smoke over the city of Balikpapan and its 700,000 residents.

The bulk carrier MV Ever Judger was anchored in the bay and as the burning slick drifted towards it the stern of the vessel caught fire. The 20 crew were filmed via a mobile phone evacuating the ship and this dramatic footage was posted online.

The country’s state oil company Pertamina, which had a pipe from an oil refinery running across the bottom of the bay, then announced it was not responsible for the spill. Pertamina said that its testing showed the slick was diesel fuel used by ships, not crude oil from the refinery.

In doing so Pertamina pointed the finger at MV Ever Judger which was the only large vessel in the bay at the time of the fire. Four days later media reported oil company officials as saying MV Ever Judger was not responsible as Pertamina had discovered the oil pipe was broken and leaking.

Three weeks later the MV Ever Judger and its crew were seized and investigated for allegedly dropping an anchor on the pipe, dragging and breaking it. The ship’s captain was subsequently charged.

What lessons can be learned from this series of events? The first is to never speculate or state what happened until you are certain of the facts. While it is important to communicate early in a crisis and acknowledge the situation and what is being done, and keep stakeholders up to date, organisations should never speculate. If they do and they are wrong, they undermine their credibility and damage their reputation as Pertamina did in this instance.

There are seven factors that are key to managing media relations effectively and gaining control of the public relations agenda during a maritime emergency.

  1. The most important factor is to have a communication plan with social media and other protocols so everyone knows the procedure they should follow when a crisis occurs. With management focused on operational issues, there should be a separate team responsible for stakeholder and media communication and protecting the organisation’s reputation. And it should have authority to act, within agreed parameters.
  2. The second factor is speed. It is important to determine and communicate your messages before others take control of the agenda so you influence public perceptions before opinions are formed. This requires an agreed protocol, agreed generic messages, an available spokesperson, and immediate access to social, online and broadcast media.
  3. Increasingly, those affected by a crisis are using social media to pursue their own agendas and to influence government, regulators and other stakeholders. An organisation, therefore, should ensure it is able to monitor and respond immediately to critical commentary.

Social media also provides an opportunity for companies to seize control of the agenda – provided its protocol allows it to do so.

  1. Explain the facts. All communication during a crisis must be based on facts, which should be explained logically in simple language – and possibly pictures or diagrams – so people understand the situation and what you are doing about it. Importantly, never cover up or speculate. If you try to cover up, you are likely to be found out.
  2. Give your company a human face. Impersonal statements place you at a disadvantage when your company is being attacked passionately by environmentalists and those affected. You should have at least two spokespeople who are fully trained to communicate your messages sympathetically and calmly, without appearing flustered or defensive.
  3. Consider encouraging independent commentary. People are often more prepared to listen to commentators they trust – whether journalists or academics – than to the company involved.
  4. And finally, be flexible. While you should stick firmly to the agreed strategy and crisis communication procedures, be prepared to change them if the situation changes – which often does happen during an ongoing crisis.

As with every business activity, planning and practice are critical. Crises tend to happen when one least expects them, and often at inconvenient times.  If you have to handle one, you will be grateful if you are well prepared.

 

This article is a summary of a speech and presentation that FCR Director, Jeremy Kirk delivered at the recent Spillcon Conference in Perth.