By Michelle Wang and Allan Briggs
On 19 July 2019, the Stena Impero, a British-flagged oil tanker owned by Swedish company Stena Bulk, was seized by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard in the key shipping route of the Strait of Hormuz after Tehran said it was “violating international maritime rules”. The Stena Impero had 23 personnel from India, Russia, Latvia, and the Philippines on board when it was seized.
The Mesdar, another British-owned Liberian-flagged oil tanker operated by Glasgow-based Norbulk Shipping UK, was also boarded by armed guards but is now free to continue its journey. The seizure of the Stena Impero comes two weeks after Royal Marines helped seize Iranian tanker Grace 1 off Gibraltar.
An article published by the BBC on 20 July 2019 states that the Tasnim News Agency said that the tanker was seized for breaking three regulations: shutting down its GPS; going through the exit of the Strait of Hormuz rather than the entrance; and ignoring warnings.
A later article published on 22 July 2019, also by the BBC, states that the IRNA says the tanker was captured after it collided with a fishing boat and failed to respond to calls from the smaller craft.
As Richard Meade from maritime publication Lloyds List explains, the fact that the Stena Impero sails under the UK flag means that “history speaking … the UK owes protection to the vessel.” Ships must fly the flag of a nation state, but it does not need to be the same nation as its owners.
According to (now former) Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt, the UK government are “looking at a diplomatic way to resolve this situation.” A spokeswoman adds that “we have advised UK shipping to stay out of the area for an interim period.”
Stena Bulk and ship manager Northern Marine Management were quick to publish a company statement, stating what they knew about the seizure and underlining their commitment to the safety and welfare of Stena Impero’s crew. The statement says that the vessel “was approached by unidentified small crafts and a helicopter … while the vessel was in international waters.” They also firmly established their cooperation and close contact with UK government authorities.
Once they had further information, Stena Bulk and Northern Marine Management published further statements that served to provide factual information.
A statement published later in the day on 19 July 2019 confirms that the “vessel was in full compliance with all navigation and international regulations” in response to the Tasnim News Agency’s reports of the Stena Impero having broken regulations. The statement also includes a quote from Erik Hanell, the President and Chief Executive of Stena Bulk, who provides information about those onboard the vessel and their commitment to cooperating with relevant authorities as well as to liaison with the families of those onboard.
Stena Bulk and Northern Marine Management’s statements published on 20 and 21 July both provide information on the progress of a formal request for permission to visit the crew members and vessel. The statements also reiterate their focus on “the welfare and safe return of our crew and supporting their families during this very difficult time”, saying that local staff are in constant touch with the families.
Following the IRNA’s reports that the vessel had collided with a fishing boat, a statement published on 23 July refutes this, stating that Stena Bulk and Northern Marine Management “are not aware of, and nor is there any evidence of a collision involving the Stena Impero.” They also emphasise that “all necessary notifications to relevant authorities and organisations were made” for the tanker’s journey, which was “carried out in full compliance with all international maritime regulations.”
The statement also reiterates that the vessel was “within the inbound traffic separation scheme” and had all required navigational equipment that were fully functioning in compliance with maritime regulations.
A+ response from Stena Bulk and Northern Marine Management.
In a situation like this, coming up with a quick response that clearly defines all the facts and demonstrates sympathy to those affected is the best way to prevent the spread of misinformation as well as to show the company’s empathy.
Stena Bulk and Northern Marine Management did just that, with their initial statement being released mere hours after the incident occurred. They focused on outlining known facts, iterating their focus on the safety and welfare of the crew as well as their cooperation with the relevant authorities.
This follows our suggested crisis response model and Coombs’ situational crisis communication theory (2014):
Explain the facts (what we know)
Explain what we don’t know yet
Explain what we’re doing to fix it
Explain what the customer can do, e.g. where to get more information or on-going updates
Each subsequent statement also follows this model, with an emphasis on providing known facts and their commitment to the safety and wellbeing of the 23 crew members onboard the vessel.