Low Profile

Does shipping have an image problem?

Ever Given blocking the Suez Canal (Blacksky)

Published Sep 27, 2021 10:58 PM by Jack O'Connell

(Article originally published in July/Aug 2021 edition.)

When Ralph Ellison wrote Invisible Man back in 1952, he might as well have been talking about the shipping industry. In describing the plight of black Americans as “invisible” and ignored by society, he inadvertently described the status of today’s seafarer and shipping in general.

Then in 2013 Rose George wrote a book called Ninety Percent of Everything, an instant bestseller that got people’s attention, coined a new phrase and demonstrated shipping’s centrality in the global economy. Most of you savvy MarEx readers probably read it.

Like most people, George – a British journalist – knew nothing about shipping and was flabbergasted that an industry so big and important could be so little-known. Determined to set the record straight, she set sail on a 6,000-mile voyage aboard a Maersk container ship from Felixstowe to Singapore via the Suez Canal and proceeded to tell the world all about it.

She was both praiseful and critical. On the plus side were shipping’s efficiency and ability to deliver massive amounts of product over long distances at amazingly low cost, benefiting producers and consumers alike and bringing the world closer together. On the negative side were the shameful treatment of seafarers, a blatant disregard for the environment and a general sense of lawlessness – of loosely enforced or nonexistent regulations – on the high seas.

While much has changed in the eight years since the book’s publication, much hasn’t. And at the top of the list of what hasn’t is the industry’s negative image and reputation for secrecy. In writing the book, George constantly complained of her inability to get access to anyone of importance in the industry. Nobody would talk.

What were they hiding? Why so secretive about the industry and its key role in the global economy?

Bad Press

Sound familiar? It did to me. For most people, the industry doesn’t exist. Out of sight, out of mind. A blip on the radar if it appears at all. Ask the average person about shipping and you get a blank stare, or maybe they mumble something about pollution and smokestacks.

Yet when I give copies of The Maritime Executive to colleagues in other professions – bankers, doctors, lawyers, professors – they’re universally fascinated and impressed and as enthralled as I was when I first joined the industry 25 years ago.

As a former head of communications and spokesman for a mid-sized maritime firm, the thing I dreaded most was a call from a reporter. It could only mean trouble. Like Rose George, they usually wanted access to someone higher up, but that wasn’t going to happen – except in the rarest of cases. They were stuck with me – if they could even get through to me – and it was my role to feed them the party line, dodge any embarrassing questions and, most importantly, avoid any incriminating remarks. 

Today, of course, company spokespersons have it easy. Everything is done by email. No one answers the phone any more. You respond in writing, cleared by the lawyers beforehand if necessary, and go about your business.

The only time the industry makes the news is when it’s bad news. Think Titanic, Exxon Valdez, Deepwater Horizon, Costa Concordia, Golden Ray. Sinkings, oil spills, groundings, norovirus and coronavirus outbreaks. Nothing but negative press.

In March it was the Ever Given, the container ship that got stuck in the Suez Canal and disrupted global trade for weeks. But that one was different. There was no loss of life or cargo. There was only supply chain disruption and consumer inconvenience. “Where’s my new washing machine?” “What happened to those fishing rods I ordered?” Ever Given reminded the world once again – as had Rose George – of the importance of shipping and the essential role it plays in the global economy. It also demonstrated how the fate of just one ship can have repercussions worldwide.

Maybe the Ever Given saga should have lasted longer. Maybe the world needed more time to fully get the message Ever Given was sending: Shipping is an essential industry, and seafarers need to be treated as essential workers.

Image Problem

Image problem? Sure sounds like it.

“We’re so misunderstood” is a frequent lament among shipping executives. “We’re so unappreciated” is another. But why are we misunderstood? Why are we unappreciated? Is it the fault of the media, or do we need to look in the mirror first?

And what is the point of correcting the record anyway? Why raise the industry’s profile and visibility in a world that doesn’t really seem to care? And what do we want the image of the industry to be in the first place? Communication is all about messaging. It’s all about asking yourself, “What are the key messages I want to get across?” and “Who do I want to impress?”

These are legitimate questions, and they need to be answered before any effective messaging can take place.

So here’s a thought. The industry actually likes it that way. Shipowners enjoy operating in a largely unregulated world, away from the public eye and left largely to themselves. Most shipping companies are privately owned and not subject to public company oversight. They’re an exclusive club of likeminded individuals and families who enjoy all the privileges of wealth and ownership with none of the hassles. Problems are shoved (pun alert) overboard. Why change?

The few publicly traded shipping companies are left to face the music. They must file regular financial reports and disclose important issues facing the industry and their company and explain what they’re doing about them. And the most important issue facing the industry right now is decarbonization – the image of shipping as polluters.

Model Citizens

If I had to pick two companies that best represent what the image of shipping should look like, I would pick Maersk in Europe and Crowley in the U.S. Why? Because they represent the best the industry has to offer – companies that deliver the goods day after day and year after year and talk publicly about the industry’s challenges and what they’re doing to meet them.

Maersk, of course, is public – the world’s biggest maritime company, accounting for a big chunk of Denmark’s GDP and a leader in every way. It began publishing an Annual Sustainability Report – in addition to the required Annual Report – a number of years ago to explain what it does, why it does it and how it does it. Here’s what CEO Søren Skou had to say in the introduction to this year’s report:

In 2020, we began a process to step up our efforts on decarbonisation. I strongly believe that we, as an industry leader and with the resources available to us, have an obligation to do all we can to get to a carbon-neutral fleet as fast as possible. We will not be using transition fuels, but will instead leapfrog directly to net zero fuels. The launch of the Mærsk Mc-Kinney Møller Center for Zero Carbon Shipping in 2020, made possible by our majority shareholder, the A.P. Moller Foundation, together with a group of industry-leading players, is an important step in aid of our commitments.

As Maersk 's presence grows on land to offer integrated logistics solutions, so does our responsibility and commitment to help our customers decarbonise their global supply chains end to end. This is an integral part of our strategic promise of serving all our customers' transportation and logistics needs, and we will engage with customers and industry partners to develop standards and solutions to support this green transition.

How’s that for corporate citizenship? As Maersk transitions from just a maritime giant to a global logistics powerhouse, it intends to decarbonize not only its own operations but those of its customers as well.

Privately held, U.S.-owned and operated Crowley Maritime is no different in its approach and values. While much smaller than Maersk, it employs more U.S. mariners than any other company and takes its responsibilities as a leading Jones Act company seriously. Like Maersk, safety and sustainability are at the top of its value chain, and the company recently announced it will build and operate the U.S.’s first fully electric tugboat, dubbed eWolf.

“The eWolf represents everything Crowley stands for: innovation, sustainability and performance,” said Chairman & CEO Tom Crowley. “With this groundbreaking tug design, our team continues to embrace our role as leaders in the maritime industry while providing our customers with innovative and sustainable solutions done right.”

“Done right.” That really says it all. That’s what leading companies in every industry should do.

Out of the Closet

As more and more companies follow the example of Crowley and Maersk and the veil of secrecy surrounding the industry falls away, its image will improve. It won’t happen overnight, and it will take some serious commitment from leaders at every level. But it’s happening, and Crowley and Maersk are not alone.

Climate change and sustainability are driving the change. As the industry faces increasing scrutiny and public pressure to clean up its act – not just emissions but issues of gender equity, equality and fair trade as well – it’s banding together for the common good and slowly beginning to make its voice heard.

We all have a role to play. What’s yours?

Jack O'Connell is the magazine's Senior Editor. 

The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.