Click If You Care: The U.S. Media Missed the Boat on International Piracy – Here’s How to Make a Difference

 

Tom Rozycki

By Thomas J Rozycki, Jr. is a Senior Vice President at CJP Communications

Last week, the lives of Jean and Scott Adam, Phyllis Macay and Bob Riggl became a permanent and tragic part of our collective consciousness as we all learned of their deaths at the hands of Somali pirates on February 22, 2011. While the details of their captivity and murder are still somewhat unclear, what is clear is that the U.S. military did in fact intervene and that considerable resources were made available to rescue the hostages. Unfortunately, the intervention ended tragically as the hostages and several pirates were killed in the rescue attempt.

This is the second instance of piracy in the last two years involving American citizens, the first being the headline-grabbing and around-the-clock coverage surrounding the MareskAlabama, which pirates attempted to board in April of 2009. In that instance, Capt. Richard Phillips, the vessels commanding officer, was taken hostage on a life boat for several days before U.S. snipers on board the destroyer USS Bainbridge were able to liberate him.

These high profile cases involving US citizens have served to heighten media attention of international piracy, but sadly, this attention is short lived. The news cycle moves very swiftly, and these incidents are quickly replaced by the headlines of the next day.  What’s more, because the U.S. military has engaged in both of these scenarios, media consumers are left with the impression that the pirate scourge in the Gulf of Aden (and increasingly further afield) is “containable” and the that resources to fight piracy are plentiful and in place.

This could not be further from the truth. I have seen firsthand just how widespread this problem is, and how there is very little that can be done to stop it without a concerted global effort. The sheer size of the area to be patrolled (about 5 times the size of Texas), the lack of coordination between sovereign navies that patrol the region, and the speed and small size of the attacking vessels make it almost impossible to deter this criminal activity. This is only exacerbated by a lack of prosecutorial authority and a standing government in Somalia that is unwilling to try, convict and imprison pirates.

In November of 2008, I joined a crisis communications team that helped secure the release of 28 Indian and Bangladeshi merchant seamen held on board the chemical tanker M/V Biscaglia. Working in tandem with the company’s CEO, my team was tasked with ensuring that the public messages related to the captivity were consistent. These included: Indian and Bangladeshi government ministers, the media both in the US and abroad, the seafarers unions, and most importantly, the families of the captives. As we communicated with the families on a daily basis, we came to learn that the media, understandably focused on the pirates and the hostages, were missing a huge part of the story.

What we learned was that piracy in the Gulf of Aden (and increasingly further afield) is not about ships and cargoes; it’s not even about crime or terrorism. Really, it is about failed governments, desperation, and the men and women who make up the crews of vessels around the word.  At its core, and certainly magnified by the events of last week, this is a human crisis. The seafarers of the world, both merchant marine and private citizens, are not equipped nor trained to deal with the threat of piracy. In fact, merchant vessels from most registries are not permitted to carry firearms on board, and must resort to secondary deterrents such as water cannons or sonic repeaters to ward off gun and grenade launcher wielding pirates. Clearly, the odds are in favor of those with the lethal force at their disposal.

In the years since my work on the M/V Biscaglia crisis, I have spent considerable time discussing this issue with US military personnel, members of the Department of Justice, UN envoys and academics in an effort to determine what can be done to (at least) deter and (at best) eliminate piracy. Most are in agreement: The continued lack of a stable government in Somalia is the root cause of this issue, and until the provincial warlords are stripped of their power, this scenario will proliferate unchecked.  These same experts also agree that there appears to be little support for a multi-national naval cooperation that could act as a further deterrent.

From the safety of my desk over 10,000 miles away, it’s cavalier for me, as a PR practitioner with very little influence, to think I can make a difference. However, I believe that continued attention by the US media will provide a more comprehensive backdrop for how widespread this problem really is. However, working together with shipping companies, international marine organizations and the media, we can continue to shine a light on this issue. With several ships currently being held, and instances of violence increasing, we have a duty as communications professionals to continue to act. After all, according to the International Maritime Bureau, so far this year, at least 80 commercial cargo ships have been attacked in the 2.8 million square kilometer Gulf of Aden, with 19 successful hijackings. In 2008, there were 111 ships attacked and 42 successful hijackings. This pace is unprecedented, and represents a significant threat to world commerce through the Suez Canal, but most importantly, to seafarers the world over.

There is no textbook scenario to bring to the table when a crisis strikes, and there are few crises that don’t have an extended aftermath. I believe this presents an opportunity for crisis communicators to not only manage the event while it’s happening, but to follow the scenario through to closure.  In the case of international piracy, that solution is rooted not only in continued advocacy for a stable government in Somalia, but constant and appropriate attention from the media.  The tragic deaths of four US citizens last week were not random occurrences.  They are a further example of an international crisis which needs also to become a part of our consciousness.

Thomas J Rozycki, Jr. is a Senior Vice President at CJP Communications, an Inc. 5000 faster-growing company and former winner of The Holmes Report Small Agency of the Year communications consultancy. Tom was nominated for the PR News Crisis Manager of the Year Award this year for the high-stakes program waged on behalf of a shipping client after its vessel was hijacked by pirates off the coast of Somalia. CJP Communications won for Best Crisis Management Campaign in 2009 for this campaign. Tom is also a frequent contributor to the PR News Crisis Management Guidebook.

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