What Sea Captains and PR Counselors Have in Common

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Note: After you read this article, don’t miss the links at the end – simply for fun.

Within days of marking one year since the COVID-19 outbreak was declared a global pandemic, another crisis made headlines around the world. Ever Given, a massive cargo ship, got stuck in the Suez Canal.

One of the largest container vessels in the world – longer than the height of the Empire State Building – the Ever Given was wedged into the side of the high-traffic waterway. As of this writing, authorities are still wrestling over who is at fault. (Reports cite high winds, but nature doesn’t provide compensation for jamming up maritime traffic to the tune of billions of dollars.)

Among the news stories I read during the six days, three hours and 38 minutes that the ship was stuck was one reported by CNN titled “What it’s really like steering the world’s biggest ships.” The story features Captain Yash Gupta, a container vessel skipper who has been a seafarer for almost 20 years.

The Key is Planning

While Captain Gupta described the feeling of being at sea as quite relaxed, he also added that it is unpredictable. “One day, you see the water is just calm and the ship is rock steady,” he told CNN. “You wake up in the morning and you see it’s a storm coming in of maybe five meters, six meters, eight meters. You never know.”

Gupta goes on to emphasize that the key is to plan. Along with his team, he carefully creates routes for voyages that take maritime conditions into account.

Captain David Bathgate, a cruise ship captain also interviewed for CNN’s story, elaborated on how he works with his team to develop a voyage plan. Bathgate said his planning process encompasses four steps: appraisal, planning, execution and monitoring.

A Familiar Process

Public relations professionals who hold the Accreditation in Public Relations (APR) credential know this four-step process well, as it mirrors the very same strategic process we apply to communications campaigns and programs: Research, Planning, Implementation and Evaluation (RPIE).

As explained by Bathgate (extending use of the maritime metaphor):

  • Appraisal involves “ensuring the team has the right charts, navigational warnings and up-to-date meteorological conditions.” In public relations terms, this is the “research” step, during which we scan the environment and collect data to understand the situation and inform the development of a plan.
  • Planning comprises “constructing the route itself through the various sections.” For communication planners, this is the step during which the outcomes we’re setting out to achieve are documented, and the strategies, tactics and resources we’re going to employ are detailed.
  • Bathgate expresses execution as “actually doing the job, taking the vessel there.” In our public relations model, we refer to that as the “implementation” phase. This is when we put the plan to work, take action, communicate the messages, and ensure that we’re adhering to timetables and budgets.
  • The final stage of a voyage plan is monitoring the ship as it makes its way from port of departure to port of arrival, making course corrections as needed. This equates to the “evaluation” phase of the public relations process, when we measure outcomes and identify opportunities for improvement.

While planning for an ocean journey and a communications initiative may be similar in concept, there is a key difference. Container ships and cruise liners follow a linear path from point A to point B. The public relations process is cyclical, meaning that insights from the final “evaluation” phase contribute to the next round of research, planning and implementation.

Four Steps to Success

Why is this relevant to you and your organization? Because the strength of a brand initiative, public relations campaign or communications program lies in whether or not it is rooted in this proven strategic approach.

PRworks advocates for the use of the four-step “RPIE” process because it compels a systematic progression of information gathering, strategy development, execution and evaluation. When this approach is applied, communication strategies and tactics aren’t chosen based on convenience or availability, but rather on a well-thought out plan that is aligned with your goals.

For Fun

As promised, here are two Ever Given-related items you may enjoy.

Steer through the Suez CanalNow that you are versed in what voyage planning and communication planning have in common, try your hand at this interactive simulation created by CNN to pilot a ship through the Suez Canal.

Is the ship still stuck?Bored during COVID lockdown in London, Tom Neill created the website istheshipstillstuck.com, accidentally changing his life during the Ever Given ordeal. On March 25, 2021, the site didn’t exist. Between March 26 and March 29 (the day the ship was freed), the site racked up 3.5 million views. Read an interview with Tom by former New York Times writer Charlie Warzel.

Related articles:

How Strategy Drives Success

Research: The Foundation for Success

Case Study: Transforming a Social Service Agency Brand

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