Ask friends or family who are unfamiliar with our industry what they think of shipping, and the answer is often negative. This is frustrating for those of us ‘on the inside’, but it shouldn’t come as any surprise when you consider the information that reaches beyond the industry walls. The fact is that when shipping falls under public scrutiny, it is typically associated with something negative; think piracy and cybercrime, stranded seafarers, the climate crisis, oil spills, port congestion, references to being opaque (like the Panama Papers), and unregulated beach scrapping, just to cite a few examples.
There are a couple of conclusions to draw from this; firstly, shipping and the perception of the industry has a lot of negative connotations – fact. And, secondly, that shipping is failing to communicate and control the narrative beyond its industry walls. When there is something positive to say – which insiders know is a constant – we should be proactively and proudly telling that story too.
To achieve this, when shipping is approached from the outside via the global media to comment, it must make better use of these opportunities. Recent examples include the stranding of the Ever Given, and the investigative documentary scrutinising shipping’s environmental record, Black Trail. Shipping cannot afford to be on the back foot and lacking a collective, homogenous voice. In addition, there seems to be a tendency for a defensive, combative stance when approached by non-shipping media, which may make for great news and TV, but does not serve the industry well. Framing the narrative in the rather patronising and defeatist context of “no one really understands shipping” is never going to breed understanding and empathy.
It is no longer possible to remain insular – powerful outside influences are increasingly impacting the industry. The importance of Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) drivers is escalating, manifesting itself in the form of initiatives such as the Poseidon Principles. And consumers continue to drive behavioural change at charterers such as IKEA and Volkswagen, which in turn pressurises shipowners. Rather than viewing this new level of scrutiny as a threat, we should welcome it and capitalise on it as an opportunity. Not least as we must expect more of the same.
What does this mean for our industry, which is so often characterised as hidden, under the radar, and ‘opaque’? We are being challenged to ‘open our doors’, increase our visibility and become more transparent. Other sectors have acknowledged that brand and reputation matters; having stepped up to tackle scrutiny head on, educate stakeholders as to their valuable contributions to society, and proactively communicate their efforts to improve sustainability. And they have reaped the benefits. So why not shipping?
BLUE’s London International Shipping Week event will examine how shipping can change the optics as the industry becomes increasingly seen and heard from outside its confines. We will explore how to make the shift from an often, negative perception to an increasingly justifiable reputation for striving for change, becoming more transparent, fostering new innovations, and facing up to complex challenges.
We will also ask, who should be driving this narrative, who can we hold up as examples of success, and with commercial and financial drivers increasingly superseding regulation, does the shipping industry – and the organisations within it – need to be taking a different approach to storytelling and building reputation?
The event takes place on Thursday, 16 September 2021. The panel, moderated by our own Amie Pascoe, will include: