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We live in an information rich world. The information contained on my phone (even when not connected to a network) exceeds the amount of information the average European in the eighteenth century would have accessed in his/her entire life.

However, while the amount of information available has increased exponentially, our attention has not kept pace and today that makes attention a scarce commodity.

Tweeting, posting a video, or creating content does not guarantee you’ll attract even limited attention (as many frustrated PR executives can tell you). Crises, on the other hand, can “help” even a trivial event or offhand comment to become a global story.

Unfortunately, it is difficult to fully measure audience attention. Media and social media monitoring provides a good proxy, but observed high or low levels of activity do not necessarily translate into high or low levels of attention.

The use of search terms, however, does provide a reliable measure of some forms of audience attention – after all, it’s highly unlikely that anyone will search something if they’re not paying any attention to it.

Google provides data on all Google searches since 2004 and the trends are interesting.

For example, the graph above left shows searches over time for “shipping.” This term peaks every December for reasons that have nothing to do with our industry and everything to do with people being interested in the shipping of gifts just before Christmas.

Let’s look at two more specific shipping terms: “capsize” and “container ship.”

Google Trends for the search terms "capsize" (in red) and "container ship" (in blue).

The highest attention to “capsize” occurs in April 2010, so you should be wondering what notable vessel capsized that month… There are a few, but interestingly that’s not why attention was high. Actual reason? A US congressman asked if the island of Guam might “capsize” if the US deployed more troop there – his comments went viral.

The line for the search term “container ship” is a lot less funny, but more informative. There are two major peaks, the first in January 2007 is associated with the MSC Napoli wreck in the UK, and the second in October 2011 is associated with the Rena wreck in New Zealand.

Perhaps even more interesting, what is not shown on this graph is that over the last decade the per-capita search volume for “container ship” is highest in New Zealand almost by a factor of two over any other country.

So, what should we learn from all this?

  1. Many people still don’t pay much attention to shipping, in fact, real vessels capsizing aren’t as attention generating as a politician’s gaff.
  2. Crises get far more attention than successes. Despite the publicity efforts of the major container lines, containership disasters get much more attention than impressive new vessels.
  3. Effective incident management can reduce attention. Both the UK and New Zealand had container ship disasters and both saw attention spikes, however the Napoli was managed well and did not produce long-term high levels of interest in the UK, while the more poorly managed Rena has produced ongoing interest there.

Attention is a scarce commodity, but a crisis can suddenly bring you the attention of the world, and even the most obscure companies need to be prepared.

Dustin Eno
Crisis Response

T: +44 (0)20 3326 8467

Twitter: @dustineno

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