The problem with public relations is that its own image could make use of some burnishing. In the Philippines, for instance,  the practice of PR often involves paying reporters to say something good about a company regardless of its actual reputation. Sometimes, women and booze have to go with the envelope. This is sad as public relations, when practised the way it should be, has many positive aspects. It may, in fact, be indispensable in such a global industry as shipping and its allied sectors.

The value of public relations has been summed up quite nicely by the UK Chartered Institute of Public Relations: “Customers, suppliers, employees, investors, journalists and regulators can have a powerful impact. They all have an opinion about the organisations they come into contact with – whether good or bad, right or wrong. These perceptions will drive their decisions about whether they want to work with, shop with and support these organisations.” It’s all about reputation, says the Institute – “the result of what you do, what you say and what others say about you.”

In the maritime arena, the thing called reputation should matter hugely. Competition is getting tougher. International regulatory frameworks are changing. Industry standards keep going up. People are more conscious about the marine environment aside from other issues like safety and crew welfare. Throw in satellite television, the Internet, YouTube, Twitter, blogs, online forums – and you have an environment in which corporate actions are scrutinised like never before, instantly talked about and either praised or condemned. Just look at BP (British Petroleum) and the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

“Crisis PR” often comes into play in such instances. It would be daffy, however, for a company to wait for a crisis to erupt before initiating a public relations effort. It takes time – indeed, years – to build relationships with one’s stakeholders and create positive public perceptions. Some organisations hire a PR agency to take care of the process or at least the media relations side of it, as the UK P&I Club and its managers, Thomas Miller Ltd have done. Others do it in-house, such as Singapore’s Keppel Group, Denmark’s A.P. Moller-Maersk Group and the Philippines’ International Container Terminal Services Inc (ICTSI).

Locally, few maritime companies can beat ICTSI’s public relations, which covers a whole gamut of activities from media publicity and employee communications to investor relations and community programmes. ICTSI can probably do better by elevating its PR manager to the position of director for public relations reporting directly to the CEO. As things stand, the publicly-listed port operator is a star in the field. How can it not be when maritime public relations isn’t fashionable in this part of the globe?

Of the more than 380 licensed Philippine crewing agencies, only a couple seriously bother about public relations. Those who don’t are missing two points. First, crewing is not just about supplying officers and crew to shipowners. It’s about managing human resources. Second, seafarers have become choosy when it comes to the agencies they deal with. They talk not only about the reputation of this or that company and its owners. They also talk about the age of the vessels operated by the agency’s principals, about shipboard accomodations and, not least of all, about salary scales.

Some crewing agents, of course, won’t give a damn. Public relations is so much gobbledegook. This isn’t surprising in the least. In  Manila, gossipy as the population is, wealth takes precedence over reputation. ~Barista Uno

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