It was Britain’s favourite Briton (according to TV polls at least) who declaimed that faced with a crisis, one should make the best out of it. For lots of people the week that Ever Given spent stuck in Suez was just that, an opportunity to speak, to spout, opine and editorialise.
The coverage was huge, not least because after 12 months with little to discuss but COVID, the risk of your new patio furniture not arriving was meat and drink to even the most jaded of editors.
I’m not sure that all the commentary added much to the sum of human knowledge, though it was fun watching the engineers growl as the news media incorrectly identified the ship type, speculated as to the likely causes and commented on the actual situation. But then, as their T-shirts almost say, it’s what they are there for.
It was good, albeit in a bizarre way to see shipping front and centre of the news agenda, trending on social media and subject to the kind of analysis that is usually reserved for celebrities.
It showed a lot of very good things about the industry and I couldn’t help wondering about half way through the week whether the grounding was simply a ploy to secure shipping the attention which it spends all its time saying it deserves, but never gets?
If so, it was a masterstroke, nailing once and for all for consumers where our stuff comes from and the supply chain it depends on.
So, can shipping capitalise on the attention and remain in the news? Probably not. The trouble is twofold. Shipping has been too good at hiding from scrutiny where it really matters and secondly, to misquote Paul Simon, bad news runs the game.
The last time shipping made the cut in the Financial Times for example, it was either because of the continuing lack of tests, vaccinations and shift changes for crew members or because of port disruptions on the US West Coast.
Oil price hikes might get your flicker if one of the big tanker owners is game for some comment and of course Big Blue’s results (and views on any number of things) are used as a proxy for the container sector.
There are too few companies that any editors have heard of to make shipping count in news terms. There are too few listed companies to make it a properly tradable sector (itself possibly a good thing) and there are too few charterers prepared to talk about shipping and how it could be better.
This is changing to some extent, as the bigger charterers realise that their ESG credentials rest on their supply chain as much as their own performance. Soon it will only be possible to raise finance on reasonable terms if you can demonstrate those credentials and that your suppliers are playing their part too.
Instead, taking the above mentions as an example, it illustrates the truth that shipping is going to have to face if it wants its place in the news agenda; new narratives are needed and the increased scrutiny that results from transparency can be an uncomfortable place to be. All of those will be blown out of the water by a good old fashioned accident.
Should the canal be dredged, can supply chains be designed to be more robust, will air freight’s share grow, will carriers finally adopt freight derivatives? With things returning to normal, these are just some of the stories that won’t interest editors strongly in the near future.
Interesting to us perhaps, but hardly front page news. And it still wouldn’t satisfy the industry voices who think that many of their problems would be solved if they could just get a bit more coverage.
The pandemic and its aftermath, financial markets (and tech in particular), politics local, national and international, decarbonisation and the energy transition. These are the stories that keep on giving rather than ‘industry goes back to working well behind the scenes’.
If it wants more coverage, for now at least, shipping will have to take its place in a long queue, something with which it is already familiar. And as for the positive PR aspects, well when the next segment producer calls or tweets me, at least I know which experts to call when I need some insight on shipping.