Maritime salvage and media engagement tips

Turning to two recent maritime salvage scenarios from the Australasia region, Matthew Watson, Managing Director, Repute Communications, Australia writes.

Scenario one: Cronulla, 17 nautical miles south of Sydney Harbour, February, 2013

A large fishing vessel runs aground on rocks at this populated locality, a stone’s throw from a busy public walk way. Media outlets and spectators with iphones arrive en masse to record the spectacle. It’s all over social and mainstream on-line media in minutes. Obvious questions abound. Is the vessel salvageable?

How? When?

Various maritime ‘experts’ distant from the operation are quick to provide media commentary on how the salvage should be approached. The media feeds on all sorts of hunches and notions, which morph into expectations. The vessel will be removed by (insert time) on (insert date), and here’s how it should be done.

Meanwhile, the actual salvors are up to their necks on the job, doing their best. But what the media and spectators see is somewhat different to what other experts have opined, which creates doubt: Should the Salvors be approaching the task in that manner? Do these guys really know what they’re doing?

Then, the ‘date and time’ of when the vessel was supposed to be moved comes and goes. The vessel is still there! Bad headlines appear. A feeling creeps into the public psyche that perhaps this operation is flawed.

Then, low and behold, the vessel is gone. By and large the salvage is a success, but could the salvage company have done without the criticism and pressure?

Scenario two: Kwaiawata Island, Papua New Guinea, December, 2012

A 136 metre reefer vessel runs aground at a remote, largely unheard of island. An international salvage team arrives and gets busy completing the leg work for a refloat, which is successful.

There are no iphones, no journalists and no media cameras. A few brief wire stories appear in local media, but otherwise there’s little interest. The Salvors do their thing without media pressure or expectation and move on.

From these scenarios, let’s consider some general rules:

  1. Have a media and communications plan in place BEFORE a maritime crisis situation (or at least be open to a plan during an incident). Shipping and salvage companies must understand that media intrusion will often be a given.
  2. Have company figures undertake media training on a regular basis.
  3. If it’s your vessel or your salvage task, it often pays to put up a figure to explain what’s going on to take control of what the public is seeing and hearing.
  4. Utilise a comms rep who can talk to the media and point out factual information and jump on inaccuracies.
  5. Work together (e.g. shipping company/salvage company/Government regulator) to be clear on the best and most accurate public messages. Being on the ‘same page’ beats spewing out wrong or conflicting information. Can you ‘share’ or ‘rotate’ interviews? This lessens the burden on individuals and provides the media with more ‘talking head’ variety.
  6. If there is strong media and public interest, think about commenting proactively. If there is little interest, think about commenting reactively on an as-needs basis.
  7. Don’t’ talk to the media one day but ignore them the next. Remain engaged for the duration. Work with the media. Chances are the media will fall in behind you if you take them by the hand and help them with information.
  8. Never grandstand or skite. Be genuine in getting honest, factual information out there. This builds media and public rapport and gives you information control.
  9. Never set time frames, or imply that salvage will be successful. Explain why things are difficult, and, if necessary, why things aren’t going to plan. You will usually cop intense criticism if set-backs and failure follow optimistic sentiments.

On a final note, let’s swing to the highly publicised Rena Container Ship Grounding off New Zealand in late 2011. This passage says a lot about stepping up to the mark to ensure the facts are out there:

“KIBITZER is a wonderful Yiddish word for which there’s no precise equivalent in English. It means someone who stands around giving unwanted advice.

Kibitzers, usually men of a certain age, have had the time of their lives since the container ship Rena hit the rocks. Tune into any talkback show and you’ll hear them expounding on all the things the authorities have done wrong and how, with a pair of tin snips, a garden hose and a roll of duct tape, they could have had the containers offloaded, the oil pumped out and the ship safely refloated within 24 hours. If only someone had asked them.

Listening to talkback radio, I am agog at the depth of engineering knowledge – salvage expertise too, it seems – acquired by Kiwi blokes who have spent a lifetime changing the oil in Mark II Cortinas, sharpening the blades on the Masport and clearing blockages under the kitchen sink. I mean, who would have thought?”

Karl du Fresne, Dominion Post, October 2011.

Written by Matthew Watson, Managing Director, Repute Communications, Australia