Speaking up for a port

Charleston's ambassadors understand more about the challenges the port faces. Credit: SCPA
Charleston's ambassadors understand more about the challenges the port faces. Credit: SCPA
SCPA has an active ambassador programme. Credit: SCPA
SCPA has an active ambassador programme. Credit: SCPA
Frank Geerkens has enjoyed his role promoting the Port of Antwerp
Frank Geerkens has enjoyed his role promoting the Port of Antwerp
Antwerp have benefitted from the political experience of one of its ambassadors. Credit: HesselVisser, CC0
Antwerp have benefitted from the political experience of one of its ambassadors. Credit: HesselVisser, CC0

Felicity Landon reports on 'ambassador' programmes, where well-informed, enthusiastic and influential people champion ports.

Ports often worry about being 'out of sight, out of mind'. They have public relations and promotion departments, marketing teams, school outreach programmes and visitor centres as they strive to inform, engage and gain support from decision-makers, stakeholders and the wider community.

South Carolina Ports Authority (SCPA) has gone much further. Through its Port Ambassador Program, it has created a network of advocates who are keen to be 'out there' promoting and explaining the importance of port operations and encouraging support for development and growth.

Launched in 2016, the annual programme has a target 'class size' of 25 people from varying professional backgrounds and community connections. Over a nine-month period, the delegates attend a series of educational sessions and tours, and are 'indoctrinated' (SCPA's word) into the inner workings of the port.

SCPA sees the programme as vital in increasing public awareness and understanding of its strategic plans and in building community support for its five-year growth plan at Charleston, which includes a new terminal and a harbour-deepening project.

“We're proud of the programme's success and value the opportunity to educate the state-wide community about our business and plans for the future,” says SCPA chief executive Jim Newsome.

Among this year's ambassador 'graduates' was Sky Foster, corporate communications department manager for BMW Manufacturing in Spartanburg. Some 70% of the vehicles built at the BMW plant are exported to 140 countries around the world, she says. “The ports authority is a key player for us and we are a supporter of what they do. We are definitely a friend of the port,” she says.

“They needed more people around the state with a professional background and community connections to support what they do and inform and engage the local community regarding their aims. How do you actually get support from government or locally if people don't really understand what you do?

“So they decided to develop a network of community leaders to literally be ambassadors to talk about what they do and how they do it.”

The programme has created a huge awareness and is also generating a lot of excitement and desire locally to understand how beneficial the port is for economic growth in South Carolina, says Ms Foster. “I think it might have been in the past 'out of sight, out of mind, we don't know what they do'. But through the ambassador programme, it is becoming an exciting career opportunity and interesting to local people who want to go and see what happens - especially in the Charleston area but also further away in the upstate mountainous areas.”

Delegates learn what issues the port has, what opportunities lie ahead, and how business leaders and others in the community can help, she says. “That deeper understanding yields support. Through this programme, the ports authority has voices throughout South Carolina. There is real advocacy and understanding for the port.”

Communication counts

The importance of communication between port and citizens is a key priority for AIVP, the worldwide network of port cities.

“Port and city authorities everywhere have understood that the arrival of the digital revolution means that their inhabitants have a part to play in their competitiveness,” says spokeswoman Hermeline Delepouve. “Initiatives are shooting up everywhere, with the active support of AIVP, to inform residents and visitors about their ports, to teach and involve them.”

AIVP has filed the trademark 'Port Center by AIVP'. Certified port centres commit to following a ten-point charter covering everything from explaining the port and projecting its image, to experiencing the real port and learning through ‘edutainment’.

“We strongly encourage the creation of a Port Center built in close collaboration between port authorities and cities,” says Ms Delepouve. “It is way more than a licence to operate for the port. We are convinced that it should be supported by all stakeholders of port cities. Port Centers have the vocation of explaining, educating and bringing together the port community and the citizens. But it is not only a visitors' centre with an exhibition. One of the main objectives consists of organising port excursions/visits, port lectures and other educational projects with a broad network in the port community, schools and universities.”

The key message, she says, is creating a link between citizens and their port, making people proud of their port and developing the idea of a 'port citizen'.

The port diplomat

Before taking up the role of port ambassador at Antwerp Port Authority, Frank Geerkens was the Belgian ambassador to the Netherlands. Now nearing the end of a four-year term at the port, he is preparing to return to his more mainstream diplomatic career with a new posting.

“Of course my work at the port isn't a diplomatic posting but it looks very much like a diplomatic mission,” he says. “I have brought a lot of my knowledge to the port. I advise the port on anything to do with international affairs.”

Although he has a partly promotional role, Mr Geerkens works separately to the port's communication department. “My role is more public affairs and government relations. When the chief executive or chairman isn't available, I am on standby to represent the port in official missions or meetings, or receive high-profile political visitors and foreign leaders,” he says.

“As a port authority, you have interests everywhere in the world - for example, with China developing the Belt and Road Initiative. I am following that very closely and am in direct contact with the Chinese authorities. When the Iran sanctions were lifted, it was important for me to look at what the port authority could do to restore relations with Iran. I focus on political issues which have a direct port and trade interest.”

Another example, he says, is that Antwerp's access via the Scheldt runs through Dutch territory. “Good relations between Belgium and the Netherlands are of great importance so you need very active diplomacy. Then there is the Iron Rhine, the rail link between Antwerp and the Ruhr area. A lot of diplomacy with Germany is going on there, too.”

The Port of Antwerp is, he points out, one of the biggest assets of the Belgian economy, and of national interest.

“I was previously ambassador for a rather small country; now I have been ambassador for a very large port. If you represent the Port of Antwerp, you know precisely what your interests are.”


Mark Lattanzio, Charleston regional president of SunTrust Bank and presently chairman of the local chamber of commerce, is an ambassador of the SCPA scheme and has learnt a great deal about the port through the programme.

“This is a port-related, maritime-related significant manufacturing community,” he says. “I understood that the port is an extremely important economic driver of our region but no one knows everything, so I was keen to be part of this and learn more.

“We are going through the channel deepening process - when you learn about that, the various equipment and what it will achieve, and what your competitors are doing, it is extraordinary. Sometimes you just have to see it. You have so many manufacturers who are taking things in and then putting things right back into containers to go out. I was intrigued by that movement of goods and how it is done. I have a long way to go but I have learned enough to be a better ambassador in the community at large, and that is what I do.”

When the port comes up in conversation, says Mr Lattanzio, he is now able to “talk more intelligently about the goals and operational features”.

“One in 11 jobs in the state are related to the port and yet there are still a lot of people who don't know what the port does. If the average person in Charleston understood the depth and breadth of what is going on in the maritime community they would find it fascinating, and would be much more supportive of the port's mission. And it would expose a lot of people to the various opportunities available.”

Mac Bennett, of Capital Development Services, says he is much more tuned into the port and its importance after going through the SCPA programme. “I now understand where we fit into the very competitive nature of ports, vying for business throughout the eastern seaboard and south-east of the country. Our big competition is Savannah, Jacksonville and New York. I understand what we have to do as a port to continue to be competitive and deliver services. This raised my knowledge level of what it takes to be a successful port and what we have to do as a state to ensure we have the leading edge. This has been a very thoughtful way to build advocacy across the state.”



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