Strong comms aid pirate-hijacked tanker

The ship owner avoided disaster by maintaining constant contact with the crew members' families

The standoff between a group of Somali pirates and the shipping company whose tanker they had hijacked came to an end in late January when a plane carrying more than $1 million in ransom set off for the Gulf of Aden, nearly two months after the ordeal had began. The crew was released unharmed, but during those 56 days of captivity, the chief executive of the Connecticut-based Industrial Shipping Enterprises, which owns the intercepted MV Biscaglia tanker, needed to keep a number of audiences apprised of the situation.

In the hours after the pirates hijacked the ship on November 29 last year, shipping company president and CEO James Christodoulou placed a number of phone calls, including one to long-time friend Thomas Rozycki, Jr., SVP with CJP Communications. Christodoulou hired the firm to help develop a communications strategy that focused on four main audiences: global media captured by the recent resurgence of pirate activities; government agencies in the US and abroad; the seafarer's union; and, moreover, the families of the 28 crew members who were taken hostage.

In an interview with PRWeek, both Christodoulou and Rozycki stressed the importance of communications with the families of the captive crew, who consisted of Indian and Bangladeshi nationals.

“We knew from the get-go that keeping the families informed and constantly communicating with them was going to be core to success because the minute you shut them out is the minute they start to panic and think that nobody cares or something's gone awry,” Rozycki says.

While the negotiations with the pirates continued to drag on, the crew members' families had daily contact with either CJP or the ship's technical manager in Mumbai, even if there was nothing much to report. Christodoulou also made a trip to India on January 6 for a five-hour, town-hall-style meeting with the families. By building that relationship, Rozycki says they were able to deter the families from going to the media with their concerns.

“What we didn't want was mixed messages getting out through any other conduit,” Rozycki says. “When the owner of the ship went to meet with them on their turf and convey that the safe return of their families was his only priority, it renewed their faith in the process. Our 28 families never broke ranks.”

Christodoulou says the crew and their families “are all in excellent mental and psychological health,” and he contributes a “huge part of that” to the communications team's efforts to both educate and listen to the families. “That was the wild card we had to get our arms around,” he notes.

In addition to the families, the team had to handle media that followed the modern-day pirate's tale to its conclusion. Rozycki called the coverage largely appropriate given the arresting nature of the situation.

“To be fair, there is a degree of sensationalism that comes with the territory; this is crime on the high seas,” he says. “If there's a degree of sensationalism in the mainstream press... I think I have to excuse it because it's interesting.”

While Rozycki was consumed with communications matters, Christodoulou was involved in direct negotiations with the pirates. He says he worked closely with Rozycki throughout the entire process, but notes that it was important for him to stay focused on talks with the captors, so having a separate communications team in place was vital.

With the hostages returned, the company is aiming to take a leadership position in raising awareness about piracy.

“Going from crisis management to issues management is very important in this day and age,” Rozycki says. “What [Christodoulou] brings to the table through first-hand knowledge is what the shipping world is facing, and he has the opportunity to call attention to that so it won't happen again.”

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