OPED – Do Maritime Incidents Need More Press Hype?

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March 25, 2020
Photo by Recondoil

OpEd (gCaptain) Today the shipping industry has access to many channels of low-cost information as websites like gCaptain, Splash 24/7, and Maritime Executive continue to evolve as the global exchange for sharing ideas, opinions, and interpretations across the shipping industry. Further, readers have jettisoned paper magazines while subscribing to social media and YouTube channels run by individual mariners like JeffHK and MAKOi (who get millions of video views each).

Supported by readers and (sometimes) advertisers, these new forms of communication have been successful in engaging the industry in conversation. 

In the past few years, many maritime companies have spent a considerable amount of money in an attempt to commercialize this trend by hiring public relations (PR) companies with limited success.  Some PR companies have hired community managers to track social media discussions while others start the dialogue through their own blogs. Many spam the editors of sites like gCaptain with information about new products and services. These products are new, but they are products, not news.

In his bestselling book “Trust Me I’m Lying” muckraking journalist Ryan Holiday uncovered the lengths some PR companies have gone to make corporate information more exciting, to cover bland corporate news in the shiny gold wrapper of news. What’s next? “With the tools to reach communities directly at their fingertips, many (PR Firms) will fail, while a few smart professionals will converse transparently,” says Holiday. “But perhaps at that point, they’re no longer just another PR person, they could, in theory, graduate to something much more important and influential.” Holiday continues by suggesting that some will use their skills for good, others will take a nefarious path to profit.

One troubling example of this is Witt-O’Brien’s recent purchase of Navigate PR, a London based public relations firm.

O’Brien’s is an oil spill response and crisis and emergency management company owned by Seacor Holdings, a public company listed on the New York Stock Exchange. According to their website their mission is to “Make organizations as resilient as possible in an unpredictable world,” but how does PR make a shipping company “more resilient”?

Witt-O’Brien’s website boasts they serve not only shipping but education, energy, finance, food & culture, government, healthcare, industrial, IT & telecom, shipping & transportation and events & stadium venues.  They dabble in everything with some focus on shipping, basically a “Jack of All Trades, and a Master of None”.

Witt-O’Brien’s also explains: “We’re a member of the SEACOR family of companies, traded on the New York Stock Exchange.” One of the main requirements of a public company is to make money for their investors. 

So just how does a response/QI (qualified individual) company make money on a ship accident?  If you ask your Club, the real money is in the actions involved with the physical response. The bigger the response, the more the responder makes. 

What happens when maritime emergencies get more media attention than they otherwise deserve? Does that increase the liability of the shipping company? Does it stoke the recent trend of criminalizing the mariner?

And how does a public response company make more money from a response?  By having a PR company of its own, could it help promote the accident? By promoting it and raising public interest and concern the response would get bigger and last longer, all costing more , which could lead to profits for SEACOR.

A quick search shows no other QI or response company offers bundled PR services. 

Two different response officials raised serious ethical conflicts with a response company, itself, engaging in PR activities. “What happens if the response goes sideways and the shipowner needs to come out critical of the response?  If the response company is also providing PR services, are they going to criticize themselves?”  Unlikely.

Is that not a blatant conflict of interest?

But there is another perhaps more dangerous conflict.  In cases where Witt-O’Brien’s/Navigate’s existing PR clients use a different QI, will Witt-O’Brien’s now be privy to confidential information from a competing response company?  Might they use that confidential information to expand their own profit-making role?  Create problems for the Unified Command, purposefully raise public fears?  Sabotage a response?

Look at an excerpt from a FAQ Navigate published: 

Q:  We’re a Navigate Response client, but don’t work with Witt-O’Brien’s. How will this work?

A:  Navigate will continue to operate as an independent unit. We have worked closely with multiple QIs in the past [when they were independent of Witt/O’Brien’s!]and we will continue to work with whichever QI our client appoints. Our international teams will continue to be deployed whenever and wherever they are needed whilst our US crisis comms team will continue to involve Navigate’s existing US Gulf, east and west coast teams.

Witt-O’Brien’s makes just the opposite quite clear: ‘They (Navigate) will report to Sean Fitzgerald, Managing Director, Crisis Communications at Witt/O’Brien’s.

It seems clear that Navigate will be reporting to Witt-O’Brien’s management. The big question is: What will they be reporting? What information will be shared behind closed doors? How might they be looking to take advantage of your misfortune?

Are other QI and response companies confident that Navigate will not share sensitive information with their corporate bosses at Witt-O’Brien’s? 

What about the P&I clubs, the ones who pay for these responses?  Do they stand to lose or gain with a response company that is owned by a New York stock exchange listed company and duty bound to earn money for its investors.? 

Their focus on shipping bears watching because what other reason would a spill response company, offering QI services, buy a PR company except to promote themselves? 

Public Relations has already sucked up many of the best and most experienced journalists in maritime news and redeployed them to make corporate news appear to be more interesting than it really is. They have sucked away newspaper revenue by convincing an untold number of companies to switch marketing dollars from advertisements to “news” articles with the promise of making headlines. Then they seed these “news” articles on social media and other channels where readers can be tracked and marketed to directly. 

This has already happened.  What is next? Will maritime incidents be sensationalized in the same way that PR companies are currently sensationalizing corporate products and services? Will this help to further criminalize the master and increase oil spill liabilities? If not by O’Brien’s then by who?


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