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Monday, December 18, 2017

Shipping and the regulators - Perceptions? Reality? Let’s focus on dialogue, consistency and trust

A solution to the problem of improving the shipping industry’s public image, and a sustainable method of making it happen, were both articulated at BIMCO’s centenary celebrations this week in Copenhagen. But success will be dependent on those concerned coming to grips with some home truths. 

Hard work is needed to ensure that the mutual respect between the shipping industry and the politicians is not eroded even further, says Thimio Mitropoulos, Secretary General of the International Maritime Organization. In order to be in a position to defend itself against unjustified and unfair accusations, the shipping industry needs to demonstrate that it is a safe, secure and environmentally-friendly industry, he maintains, and to succeed in doing that, it must be proactive in accident prevention, and it must ensure that the politicians are aware of that work and recognise it for what it is.  

In order to make this happen in a way that is sustainable, dialogue is essential, argues Helmut Sohmen, Honorary President of BIMCO and a major global shipowner. He adds that in addition to maintaining dialogue, even when it has become repetitive, frustrating and time-consuming, education is important, as well as a readiness to listen to the other side.  

Sohmen argues that we in the shipping industry “should accept as a premise that our critics are not always wrong in principle, misguided in motivation, or erring in their professed goals”. That is true, and politicians have indeed become a focus for shipping industry venom. However, the same argument works the other way round – the shipping industry is not always wrong, misguided and erring either. 

Interestingly, Sohmen’s entreaties to the shipping industry to stop demonising politicians and regulators with cheap criticism and instead build a deeper dialogue, while they indeed have a considerable element of truth, also work the other way round. The shipping industry, in particular the tanker industry, has been demonised by the media for years, and some politicians take a similar view. 

In the same way, Sohmen’s attack on the “emotional knee-jerk protests” from the shipping industry against tighter, tougher regulation can also be turned the other way round – OPA 90 is just one example of knee-jerk protest by politicians. 

In fact, both politicians and the shipping industry could do well to reflect on their attitude. There is actually a vicious circle operating here. The shipping industry for a long time did little to be proactive and to raise the awareness of the outside world - so the politicians took action, sometimes unilaterally, to protect their constituents, and to protect their own political interests - and so the industry, rather than embarking on careful explanation and dialogue, became defensive and negative about politicians and regulators and its members were perceived as simple protesters, defensive of the status quo, unwilling to cooperate - and so the politicians took further action - and so on.  

In such a vicious circle, perception may overshadow reality – especially when the perceptions of industry and politicians do not match. The ongoing dialogue with Brussels on the criminalisation of seafarers saw the united shipping industry making a huge effort to continue the dialogue, and carefully to explain its thinking yet again; and it saw Brussels equally determined that its interpretation was the right one and that it was not going to budge. The shipping industry berates the politicians for neither understanding the background nor the consequences for the industry; the politicians believe that the shipping industry is stubborn and misguided.  

Perceptions? Reality? Sohmen is right that the only solution to an uncomfortable stand-off is dialogue, dialogue and more dialogue. Such cooperation between the shipping industry and the regulator is an absolute necessity, a view expressed routinely by Mitropoulos.  

At the end of the day, the shipping industry needs to re-establish the trust is once had – not just with the politicians, but with the media and with the man in the street. And to do that, it needs to back its public relations efforts with consistent and verifiable action. In other words it needs to demonstrate proof that the continuous improvement that it knows has been taking place really is happening.  

Contact: Bill Box