Amidst the unfolding story of Carnival Corporation, the US-based parent of the operator of the Costa Concordia and their crisis communications strategy (and news that they hired a crisis pr agency), the following book excerpt from my recently released PR Book, “For Immediate Release” unfolds how Carnival successful handled a previous disaster:
The November 2010 crisis of Carnival’s Splendor cruise ship is a great example of out-in-front crisis communication. 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 a 25 percent discount on a future cruise. 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.
The smart and personal actions of Carnival’s leader minimized loss of future business, lawsuits, and other problems. Other CEOs would not be so forthright because mishaps on this level are hard to own. Bosses have egos and it’s hard to humanize them in situations like these if they are not willing to step up and say something. Brands often wait too long because they are listening to shareholders, or their own egos, or they simply choose to ignore the problem. Was it a good situation? No, but all things considered, the company did a great job communicating sincerely, honestly, and openly with the press, customers, and the public. Big kudos to Carnival.
Ronn Torossian is the CEO of 5W Public Relations