An American tanker executive offered a penetrating observation the other night in a thoughtful speech at the Admiral of the Ocean Sea dinner in New York. It was about communicating, and it deserves attention.

The shipping industry, said Richard T. duMoulin, has a double-barreled problem. Not only does it suffer from a lack of awareness on the part of the general public, but also what awareness there is tends to be negative.The problem is most evident in the tanker sector, duMoulin, chairman and chief executive of Marine Transport Corp., noted after receiving an Aotos award. (Air Force Gen. Charles Robertson Jr. accepted the other Aotos award on behalf of the U.S. Transportation Command.)

People just don't connect tankers with the gasoline that powers their cars, the oil that heats their homes, or the fuel that powers their industries. No, people connect tankers with oil pollution. A handful of highly publicized disasters remains in the public mind, a negative image that the continuous and heavy-duty benefits that tankers provide aren't counterbalancing, much less outweighing.

It's incumbent on the industry, of course, to have and meet high standards of operating. And the tanker sector does, duMoulin said; the continuing efforts of industry groups and companies have won recognition by the world's regulators that ''tankers are among the best-operated ships.'' Meanwhile, work must continue to raise international standards for ships and shipping of all kinds.

But that's only part of the answer, albeit a key part. The other is to address another negative: the industry's failure to explain itself to the public or, as duMoulin put it, to promote the value of its services.

The MTC chairman focused primarily on tankers, but the situation extends to other shipping sectors as well. Container-ship operators have done no better than their tanker counterparts in reaching out to the public. And their failure has cost them.

A graphic example is what happened in the Port of New York and New Jersey earlier this decade. A small group of activists began a concerted campaign against ocean disposal of dredged material. When the effort shut down dredging for extended periods, the local maritime industry came face to face with the fact that few people seemed to care - or even realize - that container ships carry goods that are important to their jobs and lives. No one had told them.

But there's silence within the container-shipping business, too. Witness the bad blood between the financially strapped carriers and their customers. ''The industry has made no concerted effort to communicate the economic reality of container operations to their shippers,'' Paul F. Richardson, consultant and former Sea-Land Service president, wrote in a report circulated among industry leaders over the summer. The failure hurts their bottom line, he warned.

DuMoulin sees hope in Transportation Secretary Rodney Slater's Marine Transportation System report. The document was put together by a broad-based task force of government and private-sector representatives. The idea is to recognize marine transportation as a system that's a vital part of the nation's economy, and to carefully treat it as such. One important recommendation is to raise public awareness.

DuMoulin is right. That's important, and welcome. Certainly an effort coordinated at the federal level can do more than single companies, often small, in a multifacted industry. And certainly a long-term strategic, systematic approach is vital.

But we'll add an observation. The task of communicating requires awareness and cooperation within all parts of the industry - right down to the level of individual companies and individual top executives.

It's far too easy for companies and their leaders to stand back and assume someone else, anyone else, will take care of the communicating. That's what the companies and executives of the maritime industry have largely done for far too long. The result has been that the industry has had precious little communication with the public, or even within its own ranks. And the industry has suffered because of it.

It's time for that to change.