Never before has our reliance on the global supply chain been felt more acutely. The shipping industry’s long-repeated mantra that maritime transport is responsible for 90% of global trade, for so long assumed, but never seen, is finally present in many people’s minds.
Anyone who works in the shipping industry will know the frustration in society’s blindness to the importance of shipping and transportation to global trade and its role in supplying the essential goods we need in our daily lives. The stark image that we’re all witnessing of empty supermarket shelves finally focuses the mind on where all this stuff comes from, and how quickly society can break down if supply chains are broken.
Shipping now has the opportunity, and more importantly, the responsibility, to be the hero rather than the villain. Over the coming months, it will prove to be the global lifeline that keeps society going through this crisis.
Shipping is being relied on to supply energy, consumer goods, food and general cargo today just as it has always been. Production in China, so much the barometer of global trade, is ramping up. At the same time, our seafarers face a very real challenge in dealing with port closures, obstacles to crew changes, travel restrictions and protecting their health through this crisis.
The International Maritime Organization, International Chamber of Shipping, International Transport Workers’ Federation and other industry bodies have made swift calls to governments for pragmatism and consideration to support and facilitate crew welfare and keep ships sailing. If shipping fails, society fails.
We all have a part to play in standing in solidarity with our seafarers and supporting our industry through this crisis to provide the reassurance to the wider world that the shipping industry is resilient and can be relied upon during times of uncertainty.
In times of crisis, brand and effective communications are more important than ever; providing the assurance through transparent advice and updates to keep customers, key stakeholders and wider society informed, our employees reassured, the shipping industry connected, and to present a united voice that the industry is ready to face the challenge.
Isolation and remote working means that we need to rapidly adapt to digital communications. Making the best use of digital platforms, whether it’s the marine and energy media, social media, video, virtual conferences and digital meetings; unlike even just 10 years ago, we have the communication channels for a global industry to be very much business as usual, despite travel restrictions.
Getting the balance right is the challenge. I’m sure I’m not the only one who has been inundated by long emails from every service provider I’ve signed up to reassuring me that they value my business and are ‘monitoring the situation’, which only adds to the information overload. There is also the challenge of ensuring we do not ignore the issues that were important to the industry prior to the coronavirus; trade polarisation, the challenge of climate change, IMO 2020, the transition from analogue to digital across the supply chain, and a Middle East crisis, to name a few.
The digital age has shortened attention spans and we need to compete for people’s time, so our communications need to be relevant, engaging, brief and to the point. Smart brevity is the new mantra. The famous quote: “Apologies for the length of my letter but I didn’t have time to make it shorter” is never truer. It takes skilled communications professionals to make our messaging work harder and smarter.
Communicating effectively with a remote workforce also presents new challenges for organisations, not least in learning the leadership skills to be able to cope with people working from home. Leadership by objectives rather than managing by time sheets and enabling the workforce is key.
Alongside ensuring that they have the tools, technology and processes to do their job, we can build confidence in adapting to change through story-telling. If we remind ourselves of how we successfully overcame a hurdle in the past, we’re much more likely to adapt to new challenges with confidence.
We are facing an unprecedented crisis, that is crushing in many ways, and will undoubtedly get worse before it gets better for most. However, society and industry, including shipping, will re-emerge, hopefully in a matter of months, and we should be prepared.
The sooner we adapt to the ‘new normal’ and get back to business, the sooner the shipping industry can play its vital role in supporting society through this crisis. Perhaps society will view shipping a little more favourably when this is all over.