American ports and their communication strategies – AAPA Workshop in Houston

For a long time now, American ports have followed the general management principle that coexistence with citizens, local associations and territorial authorities, as well as pressure groups such as environmentalists, requires a constant, proactive communication and lobbying strategy. At a workshop run by the American Association of Port Authorities (AAPA) at the end of February 2012 (Program of the workshop), AIVP attended a variety of presentations on this subject, in the company of some forty American ports including Portland, Oakland, Miami, New Orleans, Seattle, Montreal, Quebec, Long Beach and many more.

«Seaports deliver prosperity»
Launched by AAPA in 2008, this slogan marked the start of a campaign to publicise the economic and social importance of sea ports, carried out with the assistance of a large public relations firm (Edelman PR). The aim was to create a heightened level of awareness both in decision-makers and among the general population. Since then, encouraged by AAPA, port initiatives have multiplied, in conjunction with political lobbying campaigns. On the ground, press releases have gradually given way to direct dialogue with citizens and the economic community.

Although every port is different, as is expressed by the saying current in the shipping world “When you have seen one port, you have seen one port”, a consensus exists which stresses the importance of showing the economic spin-off effects of port activity in terms of added value, taxes and job creation. Like the Port of Detroit , which carried out an economic impact study in October 2011, the majority of American ports call in independent consultants in order to have the support of an official document which is hard to argue against. Nevertheless, although this document is essential for negotiations between public and political authorities, the spin-off benefits are not so convincing in the framework of relations between the port and the general public, where a more direct, educational approach is needed.

Social integration, a question of reciprocity
At the AAPA seminar, the Ports of Miami and Oakland insisted on the usefulness of developing this relationship of exchange and reciprocity with the public. To achieve this, the Port of Miami recently organised a communications campaign saying that “The Port thanks its citizens”. The idea was to show that, even if often indirectly, every citizen contributed to the port’s prosperity.
In another example of a strategy with the same purpose, the Ports of Oakland and Houston have:
- Launched simple citizen initiatives of the “Plant a tree” type in order to mobilise the public and make them aware of the ports’ environmental policies
- Set up citizen working committees which participate in developing a community project. Similar to – but more informal than – the idea of public debate developed in many European countries for major infrastructure projects, this American approach is more direct and is frequently an initiative of the port authorities, who take on the necessary human resources.

The Port of Cleveland goes further, considering that the Port Authority is like a hybrid organisation with a double mission: one the one hand to use a business-management approach to ensure the competitiveness of its territory and the companies established there; and on the other to develop initiatives for the benefit of the community as a whole, which might be considered more important than in a public authority.

Although the subject was only timidly explored in the workshop, it would appear that more and more companies are considering SER among the criteria for the decision to install their business in a port. In this context, the port can offer a genuine cost-benefit advantage; if it has already laid the foundations for a social integration policy, all the actors can benefit.

Port education at all levels
Projects for educating the young about careers in the shipping and port industries, already available in most American ports, are an integral part of the social integration policy. A few examples are given below.

At Houston, the Maritime Academy is an initiative by the Port Authority in partnership with a local economic development agency. Created in 2009, it offers a four-year training programme developed by the American Maritime Administration which enables young people aged from 14 to 18 (High school – last year in secondary education) to discover or learn more about the port and shipping industries, and thus become aware of the employment opportunities available in the sector.

Since 1994, the Port of Oakland has been rewarding the best pupils at high schools using a special fund created for the purpose. The port has also always done its best to remain an open space, and has set up two information centres for visitors who want to learn more about developments. Today the port plans to go further still in more direct contact with the public, so as to build up more stable and lasting relations with the community. It is doubling its efforts to reach the public directly by outreach activities in schools, associations, cultural activities, development organisations and interest groups http://www.portofoakland.com/communit/ .

“Behind the Scenes” is an initiative launched by the Port of Portland to offer anyone who is interested the possibility of coming to discover the port and river-related economic activities. A page in Facebook and a rich, varied programme of visits opens a window on the everyday activities of this shipping-related industry, which generates more than 19,000 jobs in the region http://www.facebook.com/portlandharbor.

To mark its 100th anniversary, the Port of Seattle has set up a series of initiatives called “Port 101 Series”, which allows adults to take a boat trip in which they discover the different operational areas involved in sea transport and port activity, and see their economic impact in the port’s territory. http://www.portseattle.org/Supporting-Our-Community/Trade-Education/Pages/Port-101.aspx

Global strategies
It is therefore evident that for American Ports, citizen integration is part of a global communication strategy which does not neglect any of the judgments, ideas or opinions that citizens may have about port activity in the future. The objectives are clear: to anticipate opposition, to inform, to convince… but also to educate and generate awareness in young people about port careers which are not widely known, and which often suffer from a slightly negative image.

Community Outreach is an area which is vulnerable to budget cuts in moments of crisis, but the importance of its role is increasingly understood. For ports, the challenge is not only to continue operating and developing, but also to attract investors and economic actors who are increasingly sensitive to a more respectful approach to the social environment.

At this stage, a number of recommendations or principles have emerged from the debate:
- establish a relationship of trust with the community;
- have the capacity to measure the results of any action oriented towards the public through press coverage, “before and after” polls, on-line comment forums, regular image surveys;
- use social networks, as a tool to spread a clear message and as a medium which is informative, engaging and amusing. Use of video would also appear to be a good channel, since port territory offers a favourable environment: landscape; large scale; changing, bubbling activity; a range of people to talk to;
- be proactive at moments of crisis, always have an answer, be available at all times, prepare an emergency plan in advance;
- tell the story of the port, using a journalistic approach; have a clear, unchanging message, especially as to what the port represents in terms of added value for the territory.

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