Tweet in haste, repent at leisure
In the official programme of the Connecticut Maritime Association’s annual conference, the day doesn’t end at the close of business hours, but with ‘afterglow’ where the great and good, having partied and dined, gather in the venue hotel’s bar to talk a little more shop.
It’s typical of an event that is in some ways traditional and in others very forward-looking. This kind of networking might happen anyway but putting it on the programme suggests the organisers think that if attendees don’t take part, they only have themselves to blame.
This kind of interaction is messy, unpredictable and often highly entertaining – the kind of thing that tech innovators have enabled us to do on a global basis through social media. But for the most part it is governed by shipping’s version of ‘omerta’. One might wake the following morning to an embarrassing recollection but the witnesses are in no hurry to share. The internet isn’t like that.
MTI Network President Darrell Wilson made this point rather well during the conference’s ‘big data’ session on the last day. And while it would be wrong to say that the shipping industry is sitting on a social media time-bomb, some firecrackers are already going off.
The problem, according to Wilson is that in the main, owners and managers simply don’t know what their crews are doing when they are off the watch and how much of it ends up on Facebook, Twitter Instagram, SnapChat and the rest.
Sharing some wonderful pictures scraped from the web of ‘high spirits’ and ‘wouldn’t it be funny if…’ taken by crew onboard ship, he said the risk was more than just red faces.
“This is going on unsupervised because owners and managers don’t have guidelines in place to manage it. Is it just harmless fun or can it be damaging? I can tell you it absolutely can be damaging.”
Wilson knows of deals broken when a charterer crawled the web on an owner and was unhappy with what they found. “We hear the backside of this, when they have carried out social media audits and asked owners about their policies.”
If the monetary loss is bad enough, then the reputational problem can be greater but Wilson says there may be bigger issues down the road. “As an industry we are self-policing but we have a choice on whether we stand by or whether we police it ourselves. If we wait until the insurers or flag states come in with their own policies, then that’s a different story altogether.”
Ignorance of the problem extends to some companies having guidelines on Facebook but not on other Apps or the proliferating crew sites where seafarers gather to share information and air dirty laundry.
For a charterer, any suggestion of lax standards is a risk they don’t want to be exposed to, says Wilson. ‘Old media’ types are increasingly reaching out to talk directly with sailors onboard ship, bypassing the traditional PR firewall.
As social media grows in both usage and importance, the risks increase. Wilson advises putting in place agreements with contractors and other third parties but says it’s not always possible to control every outlet.
“I was recently at a collision incident in Houston where we monitored heavy social media usage and the authorities were using it too. The Coast Guard were using it, as were congressional personnel who took their own pictures and Tweeted them. The real story was how far it travelled; Spain, Panama, Singapore, UK, Chile, Brazil. Once it would have been a local story.”
Wilson says MTI’s investigations found that while nearly all companies have a media policy, only about 20% have adopted anything similar for social media, but this is critical “to protect you, protect us and protect the industry”. Not far behind this on his list of concerns is abuse of the internet and illegal downloads, which are easy to trace, if noticed.
Ultimately, Wilson says the cases of malign intent are few, but ignorance is no defence.
“I’m comfortable saying 90% of what is posted is done with no ill will , but does a 20-year old seafarer stop to think about issues from a commercial or reputational point of view that senior management would have?” he asks.
“We all understand the importance of crew morale but if we are going to give seafarers the internet then let’s give them some training. It’s hard to come back and discipline people if you never gave them any guidance to start with.”