Carnival Cruise: Even the Best Crisis PR Firm Can’t Help If Your Ships Keep Breaking
The crisis PR firm for Carnival Cruise Lines must be working 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. There’s now a fourth ship with problems – and more than 4000 passengers are once again headed back home. In recent weeks, “The Legend” also had mechanical problems, “The Elation” had a steering malfunction, and “the Carnival Triumph” attracted major media attention with 4200 people stuck in Mexico.
Really it’s a nightmare for the brand which I spoke about extensively in my book, “For Immediate Release”, in a section entitled: The Captain of the Ship Goes Down with the Crew. As I wrote then, they handled it in a great way:
“A technical malfunction on board the cruise ship resulted in stranding 3,300 passengers on board for 72 hours with no electricity or working plumbing and limited food and water. Even though the error was no one person’s or the company’s “fault,” it definitely constituted a public relations crisis for Carnival Cruise Lines. It doesn’t matter if it’s no one’s fault—3,300 people were stranded without working bathrooms, air-conditioning, or much food. Needless to say, people were pissed.
Realize that in a situation like this, there is no amount of publicity or spin that can make things even remotely positive. The goal for Carnival, as with many crisis PR situations, was simply to minimize the negative and do what it could to make it up to its customer base—and future customers. Carnival handled the issue by immediately offering full refunds for the trip, along with discounts on future cruises. A lighthearted but compassionate blog post from the senior cruise director spoke of the ship not as smelling of roses, but smelling “like Paris on a hot summer’s day . . . that’s Paris the city, not Paris the . . . person.” He also kept making continuous announcements to keep passengers informed.
It was an awful situation, and I commend the company for telling the truth, communicating it immediately, and issuing a very direct apology from Carnival Cruise Lines’ CEO, Gerry Cahill. He talked openly about the challenges facing the crew and passengers on board the cruise ship. And he made what had to be one of the most difficult statements of his career: “We are very, very sorry for the discomfort and the inconvenience that our guests have had to deal with in the past several days.” He meant it, and by saying not just “I’m sorry,” but saying, “I am very, very sorry,” he went a long way to defuse the situation. The trouble continued with a few days of negative stories from passengers on the boat, and Carnival continued to address the many questions that came up from customers even after the media had moved on to other news. The message Carnival sent was: mistakes happen in business, we feel awful, we’re going to make amends, and now let’s move on.”
While they did a great job in the situation I detailed in my book, at a certain point enough becomes enough. Get the ship right – or no amount of PR can help you.