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Social media would intensify handling of MSC Napoli today

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Mark Clark was in the eye of a media storm when the boxship beached, shedding its load on the Devon coast. Now as director of crisis management group MTI Network, he reflects on the drama

Ten years ago this week, the containership MSC Napoli sent a distress signal from the English Channel during a severe storm.

The 62,000-tonne vessel had taken on water, so the 26 crew were forced to abandon ship and were rescued by helicopter.

Salvage efforts over the next few days did not go to plan and the ship had to be beached off the east Devon coast.

I was head of communications at the Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA) at the time and the many lessons the incident taught us, from responding on scene to the co-ordination of media management, are worth repeating on this anniversary.

Let’s also not forget that in 2007, there was no Facebook, no Twitter, no Snapchat, and no smartphones — in short, no social media providing instant criticism and analysis to mess up your day.

I was alerted to the casualty at night by an anxious sounding Robin Middleton, the secretary of state’s representative in maritime salvage and intervention (Sosrep).

Hurrying to the scene, with a Sky News crew in a Land Rover bumping along just behind us, we soon arrived on the cliff top.

The crew wanted to interview us about our intentions — but we could barely hear each other speak over the wind. This would continue for the next six months.

Jotting down a few notes on the way to the incident, as far as I was concerned our media priorities were going to be:

Turn the news into a routine worksite story.

•    Assurances that the crew were safe.
•    Protection of the environment.
•    Identify partners/stakeholders.
•    Maintain a core script and a definitive Q&A with partners.
•    Identify key spokesmen.
•    Hotline numbers established.
•    Reassurance and concern.
•    I knew that more than 50 coastguards were out on foot in the foul weather looking for missing containers, including one containing 17 BMW motorbikes, worth hundreds of thousands of pounds, bound for South Africa.

I was in no doubt there would be a great interest from the public.

My next priority was finding somewhere warm and dry for the communications people to file their reports.

After a visit to a rather sleepy yacht club whose room wasn’t big enough, I turned to the Victoria Hotel in Sidmouth where the manager had agreed to turn his ballroom over to us to provide a hot and cold running-buffet and coffee stop for all concerned.

Beach ‘astronauts’

Some of the first visitors to the beached containers were officers from the Devon & Cornwall Fire & Rescue Service in full chemical protective suits.

Looking like astronauts on a windy Devon beach, they assessed each of the containers declaring them safe to a nearby TV camera. This opened the floodgates for the public to come and investigate.

Right on cue, our problems began when dozens of people began having a look at the “safe” containers. Goods were taken from them as people “salvaged” items “for safekeeping”.

Armed with anything they could get hold of, including wheelie bins swiped from people’s homes, bags and shopping trolleys, hordes of people descended onto the beach seeking something for nothing.

Barrels of wine, shoes, hair products, beauty cream, steering wheels, exhaust pipes, gearboxes, nappies and the motorbikes were strewn across the pebbles.

A car park became a broadcasting hub with many satellite trucks beaming pictures of the mayhem around the globe, amid the flurries of snow and sea spray.

People were enticed off the beach by the media to take part in interviews about their haul.

The newspapers didn’t help much in our efforts to stem the onslaught. Tempted by great pictures, the tabloids ran maps of how to get to the beach, even from cities as far away as Hull and Manchester.

The thought of today’s Twitter and Facebook followers providing instant on-the-spot suggestions as where to go and what to salvage makes one shudder.

‘Scenes from Mad Max’

I set out across the beach after our evening’s live media briefing to four different networks, and the local scene really did appear to be out of a Mad Max movie.

In the freezing darkness, small fires of paper and plastic and driftwood were set beside containers as people picked at the contents.

The story had everything the media wanted. Nobody was hurt throughout the incident. There were great human stories as people grabbed anything they could from a cold and wet English beach. Stormy weather conditions made for stunning pictures of a ship in distress. Issues such as pollution risks and the way we transport our goods could be debated.

I recently revisited the beach at Branscombe. There was not a soul about nor any trace of the damaged vessel bar the anchor memorial. What a result for all those who worked together as a team.

How would such an event be handled in 2017 with much of the public perception and opprobrium being focused through social media? It would be rather different now.

In such major incidents, all stakeholders, be they owners, managers, charterers, cargo owners or insurers would need to come together quickly and, along with the local authorities and governmental agencies, present a unified front. We all know that today there is nowhere to hide when something goes wrong.