Analysis: Latest oil slick tests maritime PROs

The sinking of the Prestige off the coast of Spain last week has created an environmental disaster - and a huge comms challenge for those responsible for the ship. Ian Hall examines how crisis PROs have handled the media scrutiny

With liability and reputational ramifications to make even the most hardened crisis comms expert shiver, the sinking of the Prestige oil tanker is a communications challenge on the global media frontline.

It was no surprise, therefore, that when the Prestige ran into trouble on 13 November, six days before it sank, the vessel's management - Universe Maritime - immediately called for emergency crisis PR support.

The agency hired was Canterbury-based TRS Reprise, which specialises in crisis PR in the maritime sector.

The American Bureau of Shipping (ABS), the classification society responsible for supervising inspections of the sunken ship, has also been working on a crisis basis through its head office in Houston, Texas.

The Prestige - which was carrying 77,000 tonnes of oil - is just a quarter the capacity of the Amoco Cadiz, which was grounded off the coast of France in 1978, carrying 223,000 tonnes.

In 1989, the Exxon Valdez - perhaps the disaster most commonly associated in the public's mind with oil pollution - spilt 37,000 tonnes, contaminating Prince William Sound in Alaska.

In respect of maritime disasters such as these, Nicholas Brown, a London-based director of MTI, a comms network for the shipping industry, says: 'It seems like the only time the media get seriously involved is when birds get covered in oil.'

In comparison, he says: 'When 20 Filipino sailors - or, indeed sailors of other nationalities - perish, the media aren't really interested.'

After the sensational headlines the day the Prestige sank, some of which claimed the spill was the biggest ever, much follow-up coverage has focused on the complex global matrix of ownership that lies behind the sunken ship. Attention has turned, for example, to the company that owned the oil: Crown Resources, which has retained Grandfield for two-and-a-half years.

TRS founder Tony Redding says: 'I expect the media to run sensational headlines about "the biggest oil-spill ever" - but you (as a PRO) can't deal with that. My view is: why focus on things you can't do anything about?'

He says he concentrates on establishing 'facts' and direct threats to the reputation of his client.

However, one comms consultant, who works predominantly on non-maritime crises, says: 'You can't have emotional issues such as polluted beaches sitting with technical excuses - annoyance and anger will result. Spilling oil doesn't make friends in the global community.'

Grandfield account director Mani Venmans says: 'In addition to the message that Crown deeply regrets the pollution damage, two key messages have been that the vessel had passed its inspection, and that we are co-operating with investigations.'

Redding, who insists communication from vessel managers on 'ecological consequences' is 'inappropriate', says: 'We have issued statements expressing deep regret at the incident. But I have focused on what can be done, for example, on compensation claims for the people affected.'

In addition, Redding says comment on 'generic tanker industry issues', such as, for example, whether regulations should be tightened in the aftermath of this latest disaster, lies outside his remit and is, in his view, best left to industry bodies.

PROs who focus on the maritime sector are - like most crisis communicators - keen to keep a low profile, but all emphasise the specialist nature of maritime work. As John Guy, a partner at Merlin Corporate Communications, which has a number of shipping clients, says: 'We don't think of ourselves as a PR firm. We think of ourselves as shipping people.'

Redding says any comms professional not familiar with the minutiae of issues such as international shipping conventions - let alone maritime apparatus such as Yokohama fenders, IGS (inert-gas systems) and submersible pumps - are unlikely to be able to acquaint themselves with maritime operations quickly enough to be of much use to a strife-hit client.

He says: 'Any reporter can cover any story, any PR consultant can work on virtually any account. But with a high-profile crisis situation, you need service that can only come with experience of that particular environment.'

One former shipping journalist now working as a PRO says that, in crisis PR terms, the Prestige has been an 'unusual' case in that other political issues have been high up the media agenda. In particular, he cites an 'absurd red herring about Gibraltar'.

From the perspective of the PROs dealing with the disaster, however, such 'red herrings' have turned attention away from the firms themselves.

But as to whether skillful crisis PR, 'red herrings' or complex ownership patterns can ultimately protect the firms involved in the Prestige disaster from reputational damage, one environment PRO sums up the challenge neatly: 'Whereas people in Britain might not know the names of these firms, on the coast of Spain - where there are people with their feet covered in sludge - I'm quite sure people will be finding out who is to blame'.

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