The scourge of piracy and maritime kidnap is not a new phenomenon, it is its endurance worldwide that causes the most discouragement. In the last year we’ve seen several high-profile, sobering cases and Greek operators have not been immune. With the continued prevalence of these attacks, it’s critical to have strong communications procedures in place.
Incidents involving the Elka Aristotle, Happy Lady, Minerva Virgo and Nave Constellation (to name a few) have brought the issue of kidnapping into sharper focus. Greek seafarers have sadly been victims, as kidnappers continue to target ‘high value’ European nationalities, and the international community continues to face a problem of deterrence.
Minimizing the likelihood that kidnappers will see their hostages as especially ‘high value’ is a key part of a successful negotiation strategy. Communications teams should examine the social media profiles of those kidnapped early on to understand what perception of wealth they have been conveying to the world. The captors will certainly be doing the same.
Kidnap is ultimately a problem with human beings at its heart and this reality can make its management much more stressful than other incident types. Specialist insurance products and teams can help. While professional negotiators won’t hold the phone for you, they will offer advice and support on every facet of the complex process: selecting a communicator, deciding on a financial strategy, offering advice on drop-offs and handovers, and countless other decisions that shape the conclusion of the incident.
From a communications standpoint, they will practice and predict the likely outcomes of all interactions with the kidnappers. They can do this because the reality of commercial kidnap is highly predictable – it is shaped by a long-established business model. Though not without its own unique challenges, the rules of supply and demand, and decades of proven methodology and institutional knowledge on both sides of the negotiations, ensure most commercial kidnappings end with a successful resolution – all hostages released safely for a fee. Talking to the kidnappers is not the most complex part of managing the incident, particularly from a communications perspective.
The real communications challenges lie in the other parts of your stakeholder map. A good stakeholder map will tell you who to communicate with – when, what they should be told and who is responsible for telling them. In a kidnap case you need to account for the families of victims, local authorities, international authorities, government representatives, intelligence agencies and of course the media – local and global.
Tom Adams, Crisis Response Manager, Navigate Response
In many crisis events, a member of the communications team will rightly sit on the Crisis Management Team (CMT). In doing so, they help to influence decision making and craft appropriate messaging strategies. In a kidnap case, this approach means the communicator will be exposed to all the details and decision making of the case, but this knowledge can sometimes be their undoing.
The job of your communications team in a kidnap – including the person talking to the kidnappers – is to deliver the messages arising from the decisions of the CMT to their allotted audience, with clarity, authority and compassion. There are many reasons why certain aspects of ongoing cases should not be communicated. Information is limited, situations can change very quickly, information is often not 100% verifiable, and certain information leaking out could jeopardise the entire operation and the lives of the hostages. Information must remain on a ‘need to know’ basis with the minimum number of people involved; too much information for your communications team can put them in a compromising situation when they’re inevitably pressed for more answers.
So, how then can we communicate properly with, say, families? Families of the kidnapped individuals are, of course, desperate for updates, and every day their loved ones spend in captivity is a day too long. Inevitably, the media will also be covering the story, publishing historical comparisons, searching for new information from sources that are sometimes in direct conflict – increasing anxiety. More and more pressure builds to deliver a resolution, and both families and the kidnappers may seek to start their own parallel lines of communication directly with each other if they feel they are not getting what they want from the company.
In some of the worst-case scenarios, family members have conducted their own negotiations, sometimes inadvertently acting on behalf of the kidnappers to pressure companies into increasing ransom amounts. Some have established crowdfunding pages, not knowing that this raises the potential price to secure their loved one’s release. Some attempt to directly pressure the very highest levels of government to intervene which is usually to the detriment of the company’s strategy.
So, what can be done to mitigate communications interference, not just from families, but all stakeholders?
Coordinate messaging: when there are updates to be communicated, make sure that your audience receives the same news, at the same time, with consistent points of contact. Media updates should go to all journalists covering the story at the same time. Family liaison updates should do the same.
Communicate clearly: Leave little room for interpretation or ambiguity. Information is scarce, so be clear with what you do know, and what you don’t know.
Don’t ignore new media: Everyone is now a self-publisher. Blogs and social media profiles all have the potential to damage your strategy, monitor them closely from the outset to identify any potential issues early.
Don’t be afraid of the why: Inevitably, you will be asked at various points why certain information is not available or cannot be shared. We should not underestimate the importance of the word ‘because’, followed by valid reasoning. Justification arising as the result of frank and honest conversations is necessary and will build trust with all your stakeholders.
Empathy, reasoning and rationale are some of the best tools we have to combat emotional reaction – a lesson we should remember in all our crisis communications practice.
Source: By Tom Adams, Crisis Response Manager, Navigate Response, As Arranged on Behalf of Hellenic Shipping News Worldwide (www.hellenicshippingnews.com)