Vancouver: Back in the day, as a business journalist, Russ Barling stood out, and not just because of his height.
Regrettably, maritime journalists tend to be sycophantic, writing very little hard hitting for fear of hurting their advertising revenues. Two-metre high Barling, however, was different. A contemporary from his Hong Kong days memorably said that this lanky Canadian used to hit people “between the eyes” with his direct, no-nonsense reporting. This, combined with a fierce work ethic that saw him into the office before most other hacks had got out of bed, earned him a string of exclusives.
And so it was quite a shock to all those who knew him that several years ago he ditched journalism for the world of public relations, joining British classification society, Lloyd’s Register (LR), in a corporate communications role.
There have been countless journalists who have decided to pursue a career in PR, but for a number of people, certainly at the outset, Barling’s seemingly abrasive, in-your-face way bemused many. However, in his time at LR, where he transitioned from Hong Kong to London, he helped shake up the venerable group’s reputation, engaging with the media in a manner the class society had rarely done before.
Sixteen months ago after six and a half years with LR, Barling decided to head home to British Columbia and set up his own PR firm, Scripto Communication, gaining a series of blue chip maritime names as clients straight away.
“Scripto Communication offers sound advice to clients on ways to transform their public business activities and thought leadership into positive external publicity,” Barling tells Maritime CEO.
The company offers crisis management support and can help firms to design and execute a bespoke external communications strategy.
“Too many PR firms think their communications strategy can be cut and pasted across any industry,” says Barling. “At Scripto, we’re subject matter experts helping clients to communicate. We’re not communications grads trying to understand the client’s business.”
Scripto Communication only supports clients in the energy and transport sector. Barling has spent more than two decades working inside these industries based in London, Hong Kong and Vancouver.
Shipping, which traditionally has not hogged any public limelight whatsoever, is slightly upping its PR game, albeit under pressure from shareholders, reckons Barling.
“By and large, shipping still lags behind other transport modes,” he says. Aviation, he cites as an example, is an industry, which has, he says, largely succeeded in being associated with safety, comfort and convenience.
“Shipping is still haunted by the image of the oily cormorant,” Barling says memorably.
“It is an easy image to fix,” he reckons, “but it cannot be done by an industry that believes its legitimate business belongs behind closed doors.”
Instead of surrendering the message track and wondering why shipping’s public image is usually bad or misinformed, more shipowners need to embrace a program of strategic public engagement, Barling maintains.
Part of this public engagement may well encompass social media, but, Barling stresses: “Social media is not an arena to make your first foray into when you need to manage a crisis.” It takes experience, and that, he says, comes with engagement. “Social media allows you to identify the people who are having the biggest influence on the public debate and engage with them. Before social media, that was a very inexact science, if you could do it at all.”
After decades away from his native British Columbia, having lived in shipping centres Hong Kong and London, Barling is quick to champion Vancouver as a “deceptively” active maritime hub.
From a trade perspective, he says, it is home to the biggest port offering the shortest route to the booming markets in north Asia. Vancouver is busy, Barling claims, and is home to some of the world’s most progressive shipping companies, such as Seaspan and Teekay.
The current talk, however, is all about Vancouver becoming an energy hub.
“There is a big push to make the port the exit point for Alberta’s heavy oil and North America’s new found natural gas deposits,” Barling explains, adding: “There are lots of marine-related businesses here, and that is only going to grow, along with Scripto.” [04/08/14]