Later today the team at BLUE Communications will host a party to celebrate their 10th anniversary. Founded just before Lehman Brothers collapsed, the PR agency has watched shipping change in dramatic fashion over the past decade, not least in how the industry interacts with the media.
Alisdair Pettigrew, who co-founded BLUE with Nick Blythe (pictured left and right, respectively), points to a number of pioneering shipowners in this regard, who he feels have recognised the importance of being more transparent, engaging with the people that are most important to their business.
“Maersk is perhaps the most obvious example and has been regularly cited as somewhat of a vanguard in terms of a shipowner that has embraced the power of PR and communications to support brand building,” Pettigrew relates to Maritime CEO. “They realised that building a brand based on trust and transparency in line with the significant transformation of the shipping industry, particularly in relation to sustainability was a prerequisite for success.”
Sustainability is a key plank for Pettigrew. Prior to founding BLUE he worked at media organisations Informa and Petromedia, the latter of which launched SustainableShipping.com, which at the time of its debut 13 years ago was ahead of the green maritime reporting curve. Pettigrew also spent nearly nine years as a strategist with the NGO Carbon War Room, alongside his BLUE commitments.
BLUE was tasked a few years back with helping creating the buzz for another big blue launch, namely Maersk’s EEE series of giant boxships. Pettigrew says he was impressed by the professionalism of the Maersk team, but also – crucially – how Maersk was very much aware of the power of brand in influencing shippers, as well as the public, especially in Denmark.
“It’s an interesting case because Maersk chose to control the message by proactively communicating, rather than react as they had been doing – often to stories with negative connotations, and in so doing lose the ability to control the message. We have seen other shipowners follow this approach since, as well as the wider industry as a whole,” Pettigrew says.
This echoes BLUE’s advice to all clients, shipowners or otherwise.
“Increasingly companies in the shipping industry are tasked with competing in an increasingly commoditised marketplace, while simultaneously coming under more scrutiny from traditional stakeholders such as regulators, governments and financiers, and new ones, such as consumers, pressure groups, and disrupters,” Pettigrew points out.
So then how to stand out amid this pressure?
“From our perceptive,” Pettigrew explains, “the panacea is creating a reputation that marries with a company’s desired brand.”
Pettigrew takes issue with Maritime CEO’s assertion that shipping, by and large, has yet to ‘get’ social media.
“Yes,” he admits, “we are behind as an industry in harnessing the power of social media compared to some other sectors, although certainly not all. Yet that is not necessarily a case of the industry being sluggish to embrace it.”
Social media allows the targeting of relevant and engaged individuals that would have been incomprehensible 10 years ago, Pettigrew says. There are other global industries, he points out, such as software, automobile and music that have utilised social media to great effect; for stakeholder interaction, marketing, brand building and PR. But those examples operate in mass markets with hundreds of millions of consumers, armed with billions of dollars to reach and influence them.
However, for a sector like shipping, Pettigrew says social media has not fully arrived yet and therefore cannot be fully harnessed. This is, in part, because – with the debatable exception of LinkedIn – Pettigrew argues that a large section of shipping professionals do not use social media regularly. Nevertheless, this is changing, and BLUE now regularly advocates the opportunity for clients to grow their followers – and by proxy, their brand – across the social media platforms right for their business, as they provide great platforms for sharing information, listening, and discussion.
“Ultimately, shipping will utilise social media when it makes sense for the industry,” Pettigrew maintains.
With the Maritime CEO inbox getting increasingly spammed by ever more PR firms, Pettigrew is adamant he knows what sets BLUE’s 22-strong team apart from the competition.
“Our positioning of building reputation from the brand up, and working with organisations in this way, is genuinely different from other PR companies in the industry,” he says, adding: “We’re also purely a PR and communications consultancy, where as some of our competitors also have publishing and events arms, which we believe creates issues in relation to conflicts of interest.”
BLUE’s hard work has gained attention and earlier this month it received an early 10th birthday present, when the Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR) – the largest PR membership organisation outside of North America – awarded the company the 2018 national award for outstanding specialist public relations consultancy.