Marine World

OPED – Do Maritime Incidents Need More Press Hype?

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.


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