From the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010 to the most recent MV Wakashio and Ever Given casualties, crisis communications incidents are barely a new phenomenon in shipping, a heavy industry with significant financial interests for parties involved. What are the important issues to consider in the event of an accident? What are the dos and don’ts when communicating a major accident? This was among the key topics of discussion during the 2021 SAFETY4SEA Virtual Forum in late October.
Why maritime accidents still happen?
Accidents do not happen, accidents are caused. There is a naïve assumption here [in western world] that we can prevent everything from happening. Accidents happen precisely for the same reason as everything good happens…this is something that we have difficulty in understanding
…argued Dr. Nippin Anand, Founder, Novellus Solutions.
Commercial pressure, human error, technology failure, unexpected weather, poor seafarer training and crew unfamiliarity with the ship environment are some of the factors that the panelists described as key causes still leading to maritime accidents. Shipping does not seem to be learning much from previous accidents and seems reluctant to change, as indicated by the accident investigations, argued Capt. Yves Vandenborn, Standard Club, Director of Loss Prevention, adding that most of the regulations are there but are not being implemented correctly. Commercial pressure and sometimes inefficient seafarers training remain also key points of concern for maritime safety.
On his turn, Mr. George Margetis, Margetis Maritime Consulting, Director, highlighted that the industry is actually seeing less accidents, but the impacts are more severe due to ships being bigger. For example, if a container ship blocked the Suez Canal about 40 years ago, it would be only a matter of few hours before it was taken out. The increasing size of ships, combined with the evolution of media makes incidents gain a lot more attention than some years ago, makes casualties more complicated today than earlier.
It is my belief that marine accidents still happen today because the success of the marine industry depends on human beings moving large vessels and equipment around the globe…and the risks associated with the marine transportation still includes human error, number one, sometimes by a very experienced crew working in an unfamiliar environment, for example, or mechanical failure”
…added Mr. William R. Bennett III, Blank Rome LLP, Partner.
What are the key lessons to learn from previous disasters?
When we talk about lessons learned the question needed is ‘what is learning’. When you look at accident investigations, the common patter you find is that we reenforce power and control, in the way we investigate accidents, in the way we report and conclude them. There is no curiosity, no learning at all…Ask yourself this question: ‘What did I learn after concluding this accident that I did not know before starting the process?
…said Dr. Anand.
Is a zero-incident industry attainable?
I don’t think we can get to a zero incident industry but I think what is important and we can try is to limit the impact of the incidents that do happen
…said Capt. Vandenborn.
To make an error is human but to really mess up things you need a computer. So don’t have anu hope that by bringing the computers things will be easier. Maybe you avoid many small incidents but at the end you are going to have a big one that will make the impact
…noted Mr. Margetis.
The goal should be ‘how long can we go without a major incident? And if we have one major incident, are we planned to react to that?
…added Mr. Bennett.
#1 Safety bureaucracy surrounding SMS creating a false sense of safety
#2 Safety paradox: The more procedures, the more accidents
#3 The three main type of claims in IG currently are mostly navigation-related (grounding, contacts, collisions, etc.), #4 fires, and container-related claims
#5 The commercial greed of the industry leading to safety disregard
#6 Bigger ships create bigger problems
#7 Cyber risks are going to take a first stage in the next couple of years
Can we learn from other industries?
Every industry is different, so this is not an “apple-to-apple” comparison, -aviation has also its own challenges- but the question is why shipping is not learning like other industries, said Dr. Anand.
When it comes to accidents, we have verry little curiosity and too much experience and we need to change that… I think the aviation has a record of inviting people who have a different way of seeing things. What we have is the same old thing repeating over and over again. We put too much emphasis on experience and too little on expertise
Standardization is a main thing missing in maritime when compared to other industries like aviation and trains, said Capt. Vandenborn.
That needs to come. There are too many different manufacturers, not enough simple equipment that can be used by seafarers. You go from one ship to another, and you have totally different layouts, that just complicates everything for the seafarer. And I am going back again to the training point. We need to do more on training of seafarers on all aspects of the job, not only on navigation, but also emergency and cargo side. We need to go further than just simply train them and make them experienced
As an industry, are we handling media properly?
The two sure things about shipping communication are that most companies are not prepared for the media when something happens and that, as an industry we need to do better at making sure the world actually knows that we exist, argued Capt. Vandenborn.
An accident investigation has four different needs that we need to understand. The need to prevent an accident, to create some boundaries to blame somebody, to show what really happened and to keep society in order. And often where shipping companies go wrong is paying too much attention to everything else than the basic thing you need to communicate which is ‘what really happened. There is no need to blame, or to promise the world you will solve all the problems of the world. There is no need to say we have a solution. The need of the hour is to explain what happened in an objective way
…explained Dr. Anand.
I think shipping companies should be more prepared and hire some communication consultants to be able to deal with these situations. And the more clarity you use, the better is the case
…added Mr. Margetis.
What can we do more in terms of handling media?
Every shipping company should be prepared for an incident, even if they never had one or they do not foresee one. Hire a crisis management team and have a lawyer on call that you trust that can handle the crisis
…advised Mr. Bennett, focusing on four key points:
1. Have on your team a crisis communication company experienced on responding on marine and transportation casualties. Have them prepared and let them know what your business is.
2. Make sure your legal and crisis communication teams are working together to avoid a public statement that can negatively impact the company or the executives, especially in the US where executives could pose criminal legal risks.
3. Issue an initial statement within 48 hours. This statement should be very short and brief; you are gathering the facts and you are issuing a more thorough statement in the coming days.
4. Do not issue any substitute statements until you know the facts. Make no promises, and do not apologize. Simply say ‘our heart goes out to the people’. Trust the crisis management team, work with them. If a public statement is to be made, you have to decide who is the best spokesperson for the team; is it a crisis management person or a high-level executive that is trained to speak to the public? Do not take any questions, state what you have to state and move on. Most important, do not go alone, hire a crisis communication team.
I think it is also important to realize the influence of social media and that the crew onboard needs to be properly educated on what they can or can’t do when it comes to an accident. Or even the barbeque party they had a week before the accident happened and they put it on Facebook, the media will find it, even if it is not related to the accident
…added Capt. Vandenborn.
My wish list for the future would be a promotional campaign funded by the marine industry to bring awareness to the public, celebrating our seafarers and industry so that people understand how important to the global economy are
…concluded Mr. Bennett.
Explore more in the following video