To you, it’s a vessel incident – you prepare for them and when one happens your response is practiced and largely technical – however, to others your incident is so much more than just a problem with a vessel.
It’s a threat to livelihoods.
It’s proof that a political opponent is wrong.
It’s an opportunity for attention or quick financial gain.
It’s a danger to the environment, home and a way of life.
Our industry’s incidents aren’t really ours, they’re shared, and to succeed in crisis communications we must acknowledge this reality.
I grew up on Canada’s West Coast, an area of incredible natural beauty with a complex mix of peoples, beliefs and priorities.
In November 2017 a barge carrying “millions of litres of diesel and gasoline” (note that for headlines it’s usually litres, instead of barrels or tons which makes the numbers appear more dramatic) broke free of her tugboat in heavy weather.
People living on the remote area of the coast picked up the VHF conversations of the crew on the tug, and promptly began sharing the story on social media.
The crew were able to drop the barge’s anchor and she was towed away some days later. To the crew onboard and the company involved this was a situation to be dealt with and, from what I can see, they dealt with it well. However, to the people living in the area it was much more than just a problem with a vessel.
A threat to something precious.
Many people posted pictures of the area and heartfelt statements about their emotional attachment to this section of coast. Twitter user @megzzzh wrote “This is my home, where my heart is” accompanied by a photo which was retweeted over 150 times. The tweet also included the hashtag #bcpoli (political issues for the province of British Columbia) which suggests that as personal as the situation was, the post was also a political tactic.
Proof that people should listen to me!
Activists paraded the story around as proof that they are right.
Metro (Canadian daily newspaper) spoke with Ingmar Lee, who was described as an “environmental activist” who is active on Vimeo and Facebook and who accurately predicted the sinking of a similar vessel a year earlier on the coast. He described the latest incident as a wake-up call about the dangers of commercial traffic in these coastal areas.
Chance to get something.
Every government faces a battle for resources and in Canada funding for the Coast Guard and resources for First Nations communities are major political issues.
Speaking to Metro, Heiltsuk First Nation Chief, Marilyn Slett, “called on the federal government to help fund an Indigenous response centre that would have equipment and vessels as well as training and certification for its members.” www.metronews.ca/news/vancouver/2017/11/27/rescue-vessels-race-to-b-c-s-central-coast-as-fuel-barge-breaks-free-from-tug.html
Navigation along Canada’s West Coast is challenging and there are legitimate concerns about marine traffic in the area. The concerns deserve to be assessed and evaluated based on all the evidence, but this isn’t usually how political decision-making proceeds and people on all sides know this.
An environmental activist or a First Nations leader who does not capitalise on any maritime incident in the region to bring attention to their cause is arguably failing in their duty. But this strategic approach, while understandable, can turn a technical incident into much more than just an incident and can put an unprepared shipowner in the middle of a situation that is much larger than the incident they think they’re dealing with.