Navigating the High Seas: What Somali Pirates Taught Me About Crisis Communication

October 17, 2013

The film “Captain Phillips,” which tells the story of the first pirate hijacking of a U.S. commercial ship in nearly 200 years, recently premiered in the United States on Oct. 11, 2013. When the incident took place in April 2009, I was working as a member of the communications team for Maersk Line, Limited, the U.S. company that owned and operated Maersk Alabama, the 700-foot container ship at the center of the incident.

The ship’s captain and crew emerged from the event safely, and I learned several important crisis communications lessons during those extraordinary days:

1. Build a process, not a plan.

One of the most important things that I learned from the Maersk Alabama incident is that you can rarely predict the type of crisis that will happen. Prior to April 2009, like many PR professionals, I had a large binder in a desk drawer that contained my “crisis plan.” It included a checklist and a set of key messages for what I believed could most likely impact my organization at the time. In this instance, our crisis turned out to be something that had not happened in more than 200 years — pirates hijacking an American commercial cargo vessel in international waters and taking its captain hostage.

While there were some items in that binder that proved to be useful, we developed the vast majority of our tactics on the fly. That’s why I recommend creating a crisis process and implementing tools that you can apply to any situation, rather than having a traditional, prescriptive crisis plan.

Determine and document personnel who need to convene to make decisions in an emergency, and then develop the templates and resources that they will need to communicate, rather than trying to guess which crises you will experience. If you can quickly assemble (in-person or virtually) your key decision-makers and arm them with the tools they need to decide, act and communicate, then you will be well-prepared for almost anything.

2. Practice, practice, practice.

Once you have a crisis process and tools in place, you need to practice responding. Hold at least one crisis communications drill or exercise each year and adjust or update anything that doesn’t work well.

I’ve tested my crisis process every year since then, and this is one of the most important lessons I learned from the Maersk Alabama incident.

3. Always put other people first.

Early in the incident, people asked our team many questions about the situation that we didn’t have the answers to. We were focused on the safety of Captain Richard Phillips and the crew of the Maersk Alabama, along with determining the basic facts of the situation. We responded to dozens of questions during that time with, “We should be able to address that in the near future, but right now, our singular focus is the safety of the captain and crew of the ship.”

We were open about our priorities with media and other stakeholders, and they understood the importance of safeguarding the people involved. Once we knew that the captain and crew were safe, we broadened our communications to the specific details of the incident and the response.

4. Realize that a crisis can be an opportunity.

Despite the high-pressure, frantic and sometimes tragic nature of a crisis, it can be an opportunity to demonstrate that your organization has strong leadership, responsibility, ethics and values.

In general, stakeholders don’t expect that you will never experience an emergency. However, they will judge you based on how you respond. A negative situation that you handle effectively, credibly and transparently can strengthen an organization’s reputation.

5. Build rapport with the lawyers.

Communications and legal teams at most organizations are at opposite ends of the “information openness spectrum,” and rightfully so. Lawyers must manage risk for an organization, and communicators focus on managing reputation. Despite this, the aims of these two groups aren’t mutually exclusive and can often even be complementary.

To help prevent friction with your legal team during the heat of a crisis, take time to establish a relationship with them ahead of time. Discuss, even if only in hypothetical terms, how you would review information for release in a crisis situation, or better yet, involve your organization’s lawyers in a crisis communications drill. By having these conversations before they are real, you’ll greatly improve the ability of both groups to meet their objectives during an emergency.

6. Keep senior executives’ media skills sharp.

High-stress situations are amplifiers — they bring out the best in skilled communicators and the worst in those that are unprepared. I was lucky in that John Reinhart, the CEO of Maersk Line, Limited, had a commanding, credible and empathetic presence that made him the perfect spokesperson for the situation, which made my job easier.

Ideally, the person speaking for your organization during a crisis exudes trust, credibility and empathy, so make sure that you help your senior executives stay sharp with periodic public speaking engagements and on-camera interviews. It will make a difference when they have to address a crowd or the media during a crisis, and it will help ensure credibility and resonance for your message, too.

7. Cultivate relationships with your partners.

In a crisis situation, support from your customers, suppliers and other partners adds credibility to your messaging. During the Maersk Alabama incident, our communications team had daily interactions with our counterparts at the Department of Defense, the State Department and the maritime labor unions, and it paid off with a coordinated approach to media and stakeholder relations.

Your partners have the power to either strengthen your position or to undermine it, so take time to reach out, and you’ll reap the benefits of those open lines of communication when you find yourself in a crisis.

8. Don’t overlook the details.

A crisis situation typically heightens the awareness of media and other stakeholders, and early on, when facts are less available, audiences will infer a lot from whatever statements, images and people are available. If you make small oversights and mistakes in your communications, then some may speculate that your organization doesn’t have a good handle on the situation.

9. Evaluate and adjust.

An actual crisis or a crisis drill is the best indicator of what is and isn’t working well with your crisis plan. Once you’ve stabilized a situation, review the plan, determine what changes you should make and implement them.

It’s not about being right or wrong — it’s about figuring out what works best for your organization. If you are fortunate enough to have infrequent (or non-existent) crises, then conduct an exercise or drill to test your plan and incorporate lessons learned.

10. Have outside resources ready.

While your in-house communicators can address many crises, it’s a good idea to identify an outside firm or a specific team within your current agency of record that can quickly augment your internal team in the event of a crisis.

If it doesn’t make financial sense to keep crisis experts on a retainer, then at least find the personnel who would assist you in a crisis and are familiar with your organization.

11. Tell your own story.

In crisis situations, speculation by media, conflicting eyewitness reports and uncertainty among internal audiences can complicate communication efforts. Remember that while external media are important in most situations, you don’t need to rely on them alone to convey information and key messaging.

Take advantage of today’s wide range of digital and social media tools to communicate public information, address questions and interact directly with your stakeholders.


B.J. Talley is the director of corporate communications for Exelis. As general manager of communications for Maersk Line, Limited, he was deployed to Mombasa, Kenya, to manage media operations.


Andy O'Hearn says:

Great guidance from B.J. Talley (and yes, John Reinhart is about as good as it gets).

March 17, 2015

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