January 03, 2013

Frozen communication

I swear I will scream the next time I hear the ‘without shipping, half the world would freeze and the other half starve’ refrain. That, to me, is the kind of empty, smug and self-satisfied statement that shows up the cluelessness of industry leaders when it comes to managing public perception. It also appears to me that the remark is quoted only in shipping conferences and in trade magazines, which is kind of like preaching to the choir; shipping’s bad rep lies in the public domain, and that is where it must be reversed. 

These kinds of remarks also underline the tacit admission of a paucity of ideas when it comes to promoting the industry amongst the general public. Perhaps it is a question of will, or more likely cost. Perhaps individual shipping firms don’t feel the need to spend advertising dollars on anything other than recruitment ads, and perhaps industry bodies are too busy looking after narrow interest groups to do anything remotely useful. Whatever the reasons, the end result is that the raw message- shipping carries almost everything that you use, so treat us and our sailors with respect and dignity- is never propagated strongly. Unsurprising, then, that we remain the invisible industry. We have chosen to remain unseen. We can then only fall back, behind closed doors and amongst our own kind, on worn out freezing and starving clichés, and presume that we have done our bit. 

We do not even structure our institutions or businesses properly, so the functions of public relations and media management remain vacated and largely unfulfilled. We are quite unique in this; other core industries like mining and oil exploration run media campaigns stressing either their indispensability or claims of excellent environmental records. We do nothing. Those industries, like shipping, are inherently invisible, but even government owned setups there communicate their indispensability to the general public. We, on the other hand, seem to revel in a persecution complex that assumes that shipping is the only invisible industry. This is a martyr’s arrogance, actually; we expect the world to acknowledge our suffering vitality without even opening our mouths. The old Indian saying comes to mind, that even a mother does not give her child milk to drink unless the tot cries.

Actually, failure to communicate to the general public is the unique trait in shipping, not its invisibility. This is not surprising- an industry that cannot communicate with its seagoing colleagues properly can hardly be expected to manage wider public relations with ease or elegance. Communication between shore offices and ships is often one sided, high handed or derogatory; in a culture of low commitment, the resultant antagonistic relationship shows up an immaturity that is at the heart of poor communications, within shipping and without. If we cannot have good relationships with our own people, how can we have them with outsiders?

The public’s perception of shipping as a seedy, dirty industry is largely based on our public relations’ failures. We have failed to project a positive image of the industry. We do not broadcast shipping’s excellent environmental or accident record, given that we carry almost everything the world uses- and a lot of it. We have failed, therefore, to control what should be the default setting in the public mind- that we are a clean, safety conscious, well regulated (over regulated, actually) industry with a laudable history.  Because of these failures, the public only hears of us after an accident or an environmental catastrophe- or when stories of piracy or crew mistreatment by managers surface. Those become the public’s default setting, and the responsibility for that default setting lies with us, no matter how many times we scream freeze or starve at them.

And, because our organisations are not structured well, because we generally have no relationship with the media- or enough practice talking to them- our accidents turn into public relations disasters. All John Q Public sees is a criminalised Master or seafarer looking unslept, unkempt, shell shocked, unshaved and incoherent on TV- much like a convict that he is being projected as. John makes his own judgement based on his default setting, appearances and ill-informed reports, because he doesn’t hear anything different from the ship’s managers, industry leaders or others ashore.

That those ashore keep their distance for many reasons including their blinkered need to scapegoat crews is a given, but that means there is little in the way of contrary opinion being put out to John Q by anybody qualified to do so. What appears in the media connected with an incident, usually, are reports written by ill-informed amateurs or analyses by so called experts, most of who have never sailed on commercial ships or have not got their ankles sea-water wet for twenty years or more- or have professional histories that are irrelevant. Those reporters and experts are there to keep their families from freezing or starving; they are not there for the truth.

I wonder how much of our poor PR is because of the kind of people we become. Boys (even today, mainly boys) going out to sea and becoming men. Self-reliant, doers made taciturn by circumstance and profession. You know, with the ‘our ships and men are made of steel’ kind of outlook. Spending years, or decades, in a rigid hierarchical structure, then moving ashore, carrying our conditioned personalities and habits with us. The strong and silent type. Uncommunicative, sometimes even with our families. Maybe being uncommunicative has become natural to many of us.

That may be a good reason, but it is no excuse.  


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