Somali Pirates And Lessons About Negative Publicity

Today, hardly a day passes without a news report about how Somali pirates have managed to impact one of the most important sea trade routes in the world. In 2008 alone, pirates have attacked 90 ships and have successfully captured 14 of them. Recently, they seized a Ukrainian freighter transporting military equipment and a Saudi tanker with $100 million of crude in its holds.

Some countries, including Saudi Arabia and various Asian countries, have paid nearly $30 million in ransoms to the pirates – in 2008 alone. This response was similar to one used over 200 years when the U.S. faced threats of piracy from the Barbary pirates. Then, as reported by the Wall Street Journal, the U.S. opted to pay a bounty – spending nearly 20% of its federal income in an effort to placate the pirates. But those efforts only prompted more piracy.

At the moment, the world stands virtually paralyzed by the brazen actions of the Somali pirates. Major shipping companies are diverting some of their ships around the Cape of Good Hope, and transferring cargo to faster ships – increasing their transportation costs 25-50% – in order to minimize the risk of piracy.

So what does the Somali piracy crisis have to do with negative publicity?

Regardless of how careful we are, each of us (and our companies) will face negative publicity online. Negative publicity may come from one or multiple sources, and could come at any time. It can come from a disillusioned former employee, from angry customers, from people threatened by an innovative business model, from online bloggers or people who make their living spreading unsubstantiated and malicious rumors. In a real way, the prospect of negative publicity presents real world risk – analogous to the risk from Somali pirates to companies moving their cargo through what have become dangerous shipping lanes.

What can we learn from the global response (or lack of a response) to Somali pirates (and the earlier responses to historical piracy on the high seas)? Let me offer five lessons:

1. Engage Negative Publicity Head On. In the movie “Pirates of the Caribbean”, Captain Jack Sparrow is told that he is the worst known pirate. His response: “But you HAVE heard of me.” While that line in the movie generally gets a laugh, the premise that any publicity is good publicity simply isn’t true when it comes to running a business. Negative publicity is bad publicity, as most recently learned by Motrin.

When faced with negative publicity, your response shouldn’t be to ignore the problem. As the world has learned multiple times throughout history when dealing with piracy on the high seas – ignoring the problem doesn’t make it go away. Historically, the only effective method of dealing with pirates has been to engage them head-on and eliminate their threat.

In much the same way, you must engage negative publicity – and respond. You must do so quickly, thoughtfully, and decisively. And remember that the response doesn’t need to be an attack on the source of the negative publicity. Often, negative publicity comes in the form of a blog post by someone who either had a bad experience with you/your company/your company’s products or services, or from someone who really doesn’t know or understand you or your company. Sometimes, a direct discussion with that person could help to set the record straight.

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2. Develop a Broad Strategy To Respond To Negative Publicity. Although the U.S. today is not the fragile country it was in the 1780s when dealing with the Barbary pirates, it would nonetheless be futile for the U.S. to attempt to unleash its military power against Somali pirates without International support.

Similarly, if the negative publicity is sufficiently serious, you should evaluate your resources to built a “coalition” that will help you respond. While a response on your own blog might be sufficient in most cases, you’ll often need to reach out beyond your own site in order to find a broader audience. For example, we recently had an opportunity to address the issue of spec work – No!Spec vs. crowdSPRING – on 37signals’ Signal vs. Noise blog. Although, we could have written an article in our own blog, we jumped at the unique opportunity to address a far bigger (although perhaps more hostile to our view) audience.

If you’re active on Twitter or other social networks, leverage your social friends to help you respond to the negative publicity. And if you are not active on social networks – what are you waiting for?

3. Don’t Panic. It would be relatively easy for shipping companies to panic because of the real threat to their cargo from Somali pirates. While the Saudis and certain wealthy Asian countries are able to afford expensive ransoms to buy out captured cargo, the rest of the world stands in a disparate position.

Learn from the reactions from shipping companies that are re-routing their ships or putting cargo on much faster ships. Rather than suffer paralysis – find ways to deal with the threat even as you and others around you are finding solutions to the root cause of the negative publicity.

Be persistent in developing appropriate responses to negative publicity, and be patient. Sometimes, it’s impossible to extinguish negative publicity in a short amount of time. For example, if a bad story about your company is ranked very high and come up in first page search results for your company’s name – don’t despair. Find ways to respond. Develop strategies for SERP and find ways to push that story lower in the organic search results.

4. Don’t respond impulsively. It would be easy for U.S. military vessels (or the military vessel of any other country) to start blowing up pirate vessels. In fact, last week, an Indian warship destroyed a Somali speedboat manned by pirates. But, would such an impulsive reaction truly reduce piracy? The pirates are spread  out across thousands of square miles of water, from the Gulf of Aden to the Kenyan border along the Indian Ocean.

In the same way, it’s often tempting to respond impulsively when faced with negative publicity. But – that’s the last thing you want to do. An impulsive response threatens to spin the negative publicity out of control and runs the risk of making the problem even more damaging. Consider your response carefully, assess your options, and think multiple times before letting your impulses govern how you respond.

5. Look for the root cause of the negative publicity. Observers suggest that the Somali pirates are emboldened by the lack of an effective central government in Somalia. Poverty in the region is another contributing factor. It’s widely believed that any effective solution to stop Somali piracy must include efforts to improve the regional economy and to strengthen the Somali government. Without those actions, efforts to stop piracy will serve only as temporary stop-gap measures.

And that’s a lesson that also holds true when dealing with negative publicity. Make sure you evaluate the root cause of the publicity. Is it coming from a single source that had a bad experience with you/your company? Does it foretell of more such bad experiences by other people? Do you need to respond only to the source of the negative publicity, or do you need to deal with the heart of the underlying problem? Understanding the root cause of the negative publicity will help you to properly and effectively respond.

What other lessons about dealing with negative publicity can we learn from the response (or lack thereof) to the current threat from Somali pirates? Please share your suggestions in the comments.

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