Article: Losing control of the beach was just the icing on the cake
11 July 2019
Director, MTI Network
T +44 20 7823 9444
For the diverse global media, a large mega box ship casualty with its plethora of goods being carried will be a gift that keeps on giving. A coordinated media response is a necessity.
From the MSC Napoli, which occurred in January 2007, to the container ship
groundings today, the many lessons that incidents with box ships of varying
sizes have taught us about being responsible for the co-ordination of media management are worth repeating for any future major casualty.
In 2007, I was Head of Communications at the UK Maritime & Coastguard
Agency (MCA), when the MSC Napoli developed large cracks in its engine
room whilst en route to Sines in Portugal. The 62,000-tonne ship took in water through a hole in its side during a storm in the English Channel and the crew were forced to abandon ship. Salvage efforts over the following few days did not go to plan and the ship had to be beached off the East Devon coast in the UK after her back broke. Everyone recognised that had she been allowed to sink mid-channel, it would have been a catastrophe for both the English and French coastlines.
Let’s also not forget that, in 2007, just 12 short years ago, Facebook was still in its infancy and there was no Twitter, no Snapchat and only very limited capability smartphones. In short, there was no social media to really
mess up your day and provide instant criticism and analysis on the go.
In the present day, as a rescue helicopter reaches a ship to assist in evacuating its crew, news organisations will immediately start tweeting updates.
However, even in the early stages of the MSC Napoli incident, the media were speculating that various town councils in Northern France had pressurised the French government to ensure that the casualty came ashore on the UK side of the English Channel, despite our protestations that this had nothing to do with tourism issues and all to do with the UK’s undersea topography!
The MSC Napoli was carrying 2,323 containers, 158 of which were classed as having potentially hazardous contents, although the ship’s overall capacity was more than 4,400 TEU. Built in 1991, at the time, it represented one of the largest container ships on the high seas.
However, due to the step change in capacity that has occurred over the past ten years, the MSC Napoli was nothing like one of the 20,000-plus TEU behemoths that might one day find itself on a beach near you.
After the MSC Napoli grounded, the logistical issues were immediate and apparent as they would be in any mega box ship casualty, but the sheer size of mega ships and the huge quantities they transport mean that these problems will be magnified.
What are the immediate issues?
- Where to house the journalists
- A main briefing room for journalists (to host live media conferences, etc) will need to be arranged as well as rooms for plans, technical back-up, maps, and a communications infrastructure and someone to run, support and maintain it (ie arrange WiFi, routers, power, links, a car park for satellite trucks, etc). In 2007, whilst working for the MCA and responding to the MSC Napoli casualty, I ‘took over’ a local hotel and booked out its main function room for a couple of weeks, providing journalists with immediate access to food and drink, toilets, etc.
- Expect journalists and news crews to come from all over the world if the casualty has a televisual impact. In the case of the MSC Napoli, automotive plants began to run out of car parts in South Africa and some workers were put on ‘short time’. This was enough for yet another TV crew to fly over from the region, especially to follow a story where jobs and livelihoods were being affected.
- It is important to actively coordinate the shipowner’s response to the casualty via the media and ensure that the messages are accurate and verified, as well as manage the media on which they are carried, whether social or mainstream.
- Social and mainstream medias need to be monitored 24/7 to provide prompt rebuttal if the stories grow even more outlandish as journalists and other individuals, who by and large won’t know much about shipping, seek new angles and stories.
- Ensure that the key personnel from the various agencies and authorities have the opportunity to discuss options and issues. If one agency fails spectacularly, then the blame is shared equally, with adverse reputational risks for every player regardless of their efforts.
- Significant administrative back-up is also required for any large casualty.
In the case of the MSC Napoli, the containers washed ashore became a
magnet for public and media interest, initially for the curious, then the
opportunistic local pilferer. When newspapers printed maps of the location, it helped gangs carry off huge quantities of the beached cargo, which included automotive parts and wine barrels. This was aided and abetted by the lack of knowledge of UK law by both the public and media in such situations. ‘Finders keepers’ became the norm, rather than considering it as blatant theft from the beach.
Immediate security of the affected area would also need to be uppermost in any early decision-making.
There were two major difficulties that we didn’t share with the media at the time of the MSC Napoli casualty: one was the immediacy of sourcing suitable equipment for the emergency discharge of over 3,600 tonnes of
heavy fuel oil. Another major problem was to find space to land the containers for ‘triage’. The MCA needed to inspect and weigh the discharged
containers on a piece of land formerly used as a football ground but swiftly concreted over for container reception, before onward transport to their
destination or for disposal if they were considered beyond saving.
Another finding, well known to the industry, was the significant amount
of overweight triaged containers compared to the manifest.
The sheer volume of discharged containers brought ashore by barge
caused serious difficulties at the nearby port of Portland. Unknown to the media at the time, we were within 15 containers of closing the port.
This was from a box ship carrying 2,323 containers. For argument’s sake, what would you do with the other 18,000 containers today if your mega box
ship ends up in the same condition?
Few ports have the emergency facilities and space required to land, assess and turn around thousands of containers from a casualty. In future cases
involving a mega box ship, this will be a major critical factor and one which will undoubtedly draw the eye of the media.
Environmental concerns will take a huge amount of time and effort, and in the MSC Napoli’s case, we also had to deal with concerns that were being expressed about the 900 guillemots and 200 gulls which had been found suffering from the effects of oil. Some had been found up to 25 miles away, and we needed to explain our co-ordination efforts with the environmental agencies to recover and clean any affected birds. The cleaning and care of affected wildlife was slow and expensive. It was probably money well spent for reputational purposes, but I wonder how many birds were saved?
Interest from the mainstream media gradually lessened, and we endeavoured to turn the whole episode into a routine work site. But, nevertheless, the story remained somewhere in the news for over a year.
Managing the media
Our media priorities at that time would be the same for such a large casualty today:
- turn the news into a routine story
- identify the shipowner’s key partners/stakeholders
- respond to concerns relating to protection of the environment
- maintain a core script and a definitive Q&A
- identify key spokesmen
- establish hotline telephone numbers.
The MSC Napoli had everything the media wanted. No one was hurt or worse throughout the incident; striking pictures; human stories; people grabbing anything they could pick up and carry away in the cold and wet of an English beach; stormy weather conditions; stunning pictures of a ship in distress. In the event of a mega ship casualty now, the media stories will be about pollution risks, cleanup, the environment and the way we transport the massive amounts of goods we need for our ‘just in time’ economies. – just as they were in 2007.