No comment: Five tips to working with the shipping media

There are few business sectors as insular or as tight-knit as shipping, and few where reputation means as much — or where gossip moves so fast. But across the sector there seems to be, for the most part, a reluctance to work with the shipping trade press. Why do business with hundreds of millions of dollars of assets shy away from promoting their products and services through media coverage? Why do business leaders have so little to say about the issues that impact their bottom line and their people?

And it’s not like the shipping press is ‘out to get you’. Generally speaking, the journalists and editors love the industry in which they work. Positive stories get more column space than they probably deserve, and everyone is given a fair shot at coverage. Given the stress the industry is under, I’m sure plenty more negative news could have been covered.

Perhaps shipping has been deeply scarred by the periodic catastrophic news that does occur (and for which you spend hours and hours preparing). Groundings, spills, and accidents are going to be covered by the media whether we like it or not. But there is so much to be gained, both commercially and reputation-wise, by also telling a positive story. In marketing this is called building ‘brand capital’ — creating credibility so that there is a backstory of good news when a sale is being decided or an accident covered.

I think we can all agree that Maersk is the Jedi Master of this approach.

Another reason (perhaps) for this reluctance is that getting coverage also means stepping outside your comfort zone. So how should a shipping company build their reputation and develop a better relationship with the media?

Develop a media relations strategy

Like any part of corporate marketing, a business needs to think carefully about what it wants to achieve from working with the trade media. Who are you trying to reach? What are you trying to say about your business, service, or product? How are you going to influence the audience? How does this tie into your digital marketing strategy?

In the wide world of marketing, media coverage comes under the umbrella of ‘content marketing’. Placing content with trade publications is a highly effective and cost-efficient way of building brand awareness and reputation.

Companies and their representatives need to have a clear understanding of what they want to achieve through working with the media. For example, if you are trying to improve your commercial reputation as a thought-leader, then specific people (experts) should be pitched as regular commentators.

Rarely will this immediately lead to a sale, but this is part of a longer game. This helps you start a conversation with clients and gives you credibility. The good news is, for those willing to put in the effort, there has never been a better time to get coverage. The publishing world is changing, and it has never been more accessible.

Five tips to achieve the strategy

The publishing world has undergone significant change over the last 10 years. The availability of online news and social media has made life much harder – anyone can now publish. Advertising isn’t bringing in the required revenue and, like never before, there is pressure to provide new content 24/7.

When a handful of publications dominated the sector, individual connections and inside knowledge dictated who got covered. But now getting coverage is as simple as 1-2-3:

1. Provide support. An easy way to start is to actually call a journalist for a chat. Treat them like real-live people. Share ideas and don’t insist that you get all the credit. You would be amazed at how few shipping and PR people do this. A cold call asking for coverage or a favour will likely get what it deserves.

2. Respect editorial independence. You should never try and dictate what gets covered in any publication. Regardless of whose idea it was or how much sponsorship you are providing. It does not matter if a competitor is also covered or published. The easier you are to work with, the more coverage you will get.

3. Keep your options open. Developing trust in any relationship is important. Editors will not want every article you write or every idea you have, so work with as many as you can commit to (i.e. make sure you deliver what you promise).

4. The last interesting press release was in 1986: Provide good content. I cannot remember the last time I read a press release. I think it was while I was watching a VCR. Press releases are self-serving and contain little content of use. Work on developing good content and comments. This is not easy, but the quality of your content will dictate more than anything how much coverage you receive. Be compelling, and don’t take yourself too seriously.

5. The importance of social media. Social media is a serious KPI for modern publications. As it should be for your own marketing. You can and should support articles, coverage, and publications through social (more on that in another article).

For building a commercial reputation I believe third-party publishing is vitally important. Being able to get your comments and ideas published independently should be a stamp of quality, showing you know the industry and that you are a thought-leader. Too often the shipping sector falls back on self-published ‘newsletters’ — a throwback to the days before the internet.

But working with the trade press is far more crucial for us as a sector. Trade publications are one of the few places where shipping has an international voice. It is in our interests to make this relationship work. We should use this institution better, and provide the financial and intellectual support it needs to survive.

Graeme Somerville-Ryan

Graeme Somerville-Ryan is the Marketing and Business Development Director (Asia) for the international law firm Wikborg Rein. He also consults to businesses in the shipping, insurance, oil and gas, and financial services sectors on marketing strategy, communications, social media, and profile development in Asia.


  1. There are some good points here; though as a long-time writer/ analyst (always digging for into) and sometime PR flack, I have formed a different set of views over the years.

    The marketplace we are talking about here is business to business, so selling and reaching potential clients is done in business to business media and
    through person to person selling sometimes on the shipping conference circuit (often tied to same media who do print and web). This is different from broader outreach. Most maritime companies reach outward poorly. While some others (such as law firms commenting on issues) need to show some thought leadership and show smarts and get ink.

    Where there is more brawn required than thought (carriers, service providers to vessels), then what? You show pictures of vessels or cranes? This reinforces personal selling. But, again, this is B to B.

    But remember that we have many private companies. So the “broad” part of outreach is un-necessary in my opinion. Where you have a listed company, you are required to file regulatory documents. But these follow very strict constraints, and are not the venue for fluff. Decisions on charters are not made based on an owner’s public profile. Thus “brand equity” might be a tangent to corporate imaging, such as it is, for a listed outfit. As far as thought leadership, do individual companies provide this? Or industry associations?

    The exceptions for the Jedi and their few peers are that displaying of cool equipment provides a big boost in recruitment. As shipping gets more technological (Technomaxes added to Panamaxes and Supramaxes), this will be more important. But maybe we should get the crewing companies (or other employers of seafarers on high end equipment) of working on such brand efforts of reaching out more broadly? I would argue that they will severely need this positively imagery (think of a floating LNG behemoth or a giant Generation-X drillship). A tech expertise could be a differentiater, going forward, supplanting purely brawn, but I don’t know that we there yet.

    For the public, and for some of the larger private entities, then there is “…getting out in front of the media…” which is what most shipping media advisers provide. If there is an accident, keep the name of the ship and the company out of it, ideally. Otherwise- for largely private entities, where’s the interface with the populous at large?

    As I’ve written in Capital Link and elsewhere, the way for the industry to gain leverage is to be able to “call out” charterers (including through social media)- they do indeed report to the more general public. I think the shipping industry, to achieve its ends and deflect blame for ills (real and imagined), needs to get serious about this type of guerilla marketing and devote our out-reach efforts in this direction.

  2. We should treat journos like they’re “real, live people”? Who knew? This much I did know: every time you say “no comment” you surrender the message track, perhaps to your commercial rivals. Every time you chose not to return a phonecall or answer an email from the media, you surrender the message track. If I’m a shareholder/stakeholder in your company, I would want you to take every opportunity to promote the company and raise its market value. If I was a shareholder and you rejected media opportunities consistently, I would consider your conduct unprofessional, even detrimental to my interests. Given the commercial potential of the media, it’s helpful to view them as clients. Would you not return your clients phone-calls?

  3. One more thing to this discussion: the flip side can be counter productive too. Certain companies (often hailing from Tokyo) can issue too many press releases to the point whereby when a release from these companies pops in yr inbox your digit immediately hovers over the delete button!

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