In the Robert Harris novel The Fear Index, the protagonist, a mathematician-turned hedge fund guru, has an intriguing proposition for his PR consultants. They will be handsomely retained with no questions asked, provided that he never appear in the media. Should this simple condition be breached, he will reduce the fee and if he appears more than a certain number of times in a year, they will pay him.
It struck me the other day – during the first London International Shipping Week in fact – that if the industry really wants to improve its public image, then its leading figures might do no better than to adopt a similar approach.
This was despite a week of generally positive proceedings as the great and good assembled to debate the pressing issues of the day and, well you know the rest.
Shipping got more positive publicity in one week than it had probably garnered in the previous 52. The Chamber of Shipping was on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme. Author Rose George’s excellent book Deepsea and Foreign-Going was serialised on the same station and extracts appeared in the national press. The government even got involved, offering UK shipping a (it must be said) very small increase in the training budget for UK cadets and a nice photo opportunity while some shipping folk got to open the London Stock Exchange.
Last week was World Maritime Day and further discussion of those issues and – thanks to some excellent PR work – there was a piece in a national newspaper about the Sustainable Shipping Initiative. The Singapore Shipping Association met to discuss, um, pressing issues and so the machine ground ever onwards.
Don’t mistake my purpose as purely an opportunity for cynicism. All of this is good news. It’s just that, like the whale that surfaces just before you climb into the RIB, we could be waiting a long time until we see much like it again.
And maybe that is a good thing. As I have discussed at length in this column, shipping has been preoccupied with its lack of a public image for some years now and the hand-wringing is a regular part of any serious discussion. The reasons, as is well understood, are as much structural as they are commercial, but still this is an itch that shipping cannot help but scratch.
But if what shipping wants is greater influence among politicians then in the UK at least, it could be said to have almost been achieved already. Shipping in the UK has succeeded in forging links with the City of London and the departments that influence fiscal policy, training, planning and environment. Shipping might never be head of the queue when it comes to handing out the bounty, but these days it gets its shout, even though few people could name the Minister for Shipping. OK slightly more since LISW.
Shipping has its own regulators to lobby and the IMO and EU are the courts of public opinion where it has most work to do. The indifference that most national governments feel towards it should be obvious by now.
I think that it could be time to accept shipping has the image it deserves and to stop worrying about it. And again I don’t mean that in a purely negative sense. Ask the big banks if post-2008 and the regulatory tsunami which followed, they would like a higher media profile. They still have billions to spend trying to repair their battered reputations.
The energy sector spends money in large quantities, but since the public only remember the spills, ask them if that was money well spent or whether instead, any and every incident is not just an opportunity to attack an industry which we cannot live without.
As the sage Michael Grey pointed out recently, the flood of pictures and huge media interest in the raising of the Costa Concordia are a reminder that timing is everything. However, just as the industry was patting itself on the back, we got to see just how much can go wrong and how quickly. Watching the film released by the Steamship Mutual P&I Club Groundings: Shallow Waters, Deep Trouble, one can’t fail to observe that we are lucky that there are not more casualties and that the ones that do occur are not worse. Fatigue and accidental errors play their part, but so do complacency, commercial imperatives and in some cases breathtakingly poor judgement.
At a seminar on navigation during LISW, I heard a brilliant story. An inspector comes on board to check how the bridge team is getting on with their ECDIS. Yes fine, they say. Great, says the inspector – can you show me all the updates you’ve made to the electronic charts? The officers look shifty. The CDs, asks the inspector – can you show me those? The officer indicates just behind the inspector’s head, where the CDs have been hung – in a mobile – to fool the BNWAS.
It’s for this or similar reasons I suppose, that the editor of TradeWinds has taken to waving pages of casualty data around when asked to chair or sit on one of those pressing issues panels. For a publication that is widely read for its gossipy take on the industry, it takes some guts to stand up and be the one to say “j’accuse!”.
Last week ended with the news that Lloyd’s List, my former employer and once the leading voice in the maritime media, is dropping its print edition from December 2013.
That may make no difference to the quality of its reporting but it occurs to me that the shipping industry should support its trade media better and stop worrying whether the man reading his morning newspaper from LA to Tokyo gives two hoots about the ship that delivered the paper, the ink, his coffee mug, the steel for the car he drove to work in or the building materials for his office.
Wanting to be thanked and appreciated seems to me more like the hallmark of a slightly petulant child than the mature, robust and yes, imperfect industry that we know shipping to be.