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When an incident breaks on board your ship in a far off location, and the phones are constantly rattling off the table as the calls keep coming, what do you tell the journalist who may ring within the first ten minutes and says she needs a line for her breaking news story?

The standard advice offered to harassed shipping executives by those in the know has generally been that you don't have to comment immediately.

It may well be that it's night time on the other side of the globe where the incident has occurred, and contacts are few and far between. Let the journalist know that it's the first time you've heard about it andhat you'll take their details and return their call when more details emerge.

However, do we really believe the journalist will pour a coffee, turn to his editor and say "that's all right Chief, they'll call me back. I'll carry on with the various other stories I'm working on."

Not a chance.

The news editor will know that the best route to stories, and certainly confirmation can be had much closer to home.

Just ring back the receptionist, he'll advise the journalist, and in a very chummy way, ask what's going on. They are much more likely to spill the beans or at least confirm by nods and winks the outline of the story.

Or perhaps a well placed call to the homes of some of the locally based executives will be made.

(A decent updated contacts database for any newsroom is a must!)

Let's picture the scene. The phone rings at home:

"Oh, I'm so sorry, you just missed Phillipe. He was called earlier by the CEO's secretary in a real flap. There is a bit of a panic on at the office. Something to do with an engine explosion on one of the tankers, I think.

"I'm sure if you try his mobile he can talk to you later. Do you have his number?"

Bingo! Confirmation of incident for the journalist.

Journalists are paid by results. By solid headlines and interesting stories. Why wouldn't they circumvent the official channels and try to obtain a more earthy commentary on the unfolding crisis which has just engulfed the company?

Remember that journalists and possibly representatives of clients can easily post some questions to your under fire staff via twitter and other online channels in a crisis. Make sure that your office policies include how to respond to such online enquiries. You don't want to put off potential clients as they watch your confused reactions to the developing news story.

A simple question sent via Twitter can be much more dangerous than a journalist calling the office or showing up at the front desk, as the throw away comment can be repeated ad nauseam right across the media streams. It could be occasioned by a back office staff member frustrated by what he or she perceives as slanted coverage by a local news station and wanting to 'set the record straight" without reference to your communications team. Are all your back office staff plugged into your communications strategy?

Secretaries, receptionists and post room staff all do a vital job within any size of corporate body but like human beings everywhere enjoy a bit of gossip, and are generally connected to the movers and shakers within the company. Any decent journalist will know that, and will be looking for the unguarded comment.

Those who answer the phone to your company are your key frontline staff. They are probably likely to be the first ones to hear about the incident, whether it's from a journalist who may have made the connections locally after reading about it on twitter or have been tipped off by a breaking wire story.

It's generally a good idea to engage with your receptionists/secretaries to ensure they know how to handle media calls, but it's vital to ensure they know what to do in an unexpected crisis. Everyone needs to have some measure of media awareness in an incident, from your receptionist to your security guard to partners of key executives.

You don't have to put all your front desk people through media training but perhaps it might be worth considering an easy to read, cut out n' keep, policy that shapes their reaction when confronted by an unexpected media contact.

How will you feel after you've spent a considerable amount of money media training your CEO when a temp on the front desk says something 'unfortunate', and confirms that which you'd hope to keep out of the media glare.

Awareness of polite media handling by your security staff at your front desk is also a must. The moving image of a hand in front of a lens is manna from heaven to a local TV producer trying to develop a package for that evening's news. It usually implies the company has something to hide whereas your security people will claim they were just trying to ease them out of the front desk area. Perception has more weight than reality in this case.

For more information and help with maritime crisis communications, visit www.navigateresponse.com

Mark Clark

Director of Navigate Response