Captain Missing from the ‘PR Cruise’

January 30th, 2012

The titanic capsize of Costa Concordia on January 13, now responsible for 16 deaths and a dozen more missing, has engendered quite a scene at sea with its ‘half-sunken’ cruise ship. In addition, it has also managed to get itself stranded in a media whirlpool. Although the press coverage of the tragic accident seems to be winding down, the incident continues to stir a buzz within the industry – thanks to the notorious PR blunders of the Captain and CEO.

As soon as the news hit land, all spotlights were on the ship’s parent company – Carnival Cruise Lines – waiting for a response that would quell the anxiety of many. What the public got in response was not expected – nothing like the authoritative tone of Captain De Falco, but rather resembling the irresponsible (or apathetic?) attitude of Captain Schettino.

Approximately 24 hours later, Carnival released its first statement that did not quote a specific person. Meanwhile, the company’s CEO – Micky Arison – expressed his condolences to the victims via Twitter from Miami, located 5,000 miles away from the site of the crash. The CEO’s distant engagement and low-profile management of the crisis has been ironically deafening.

Arison’s executive crew facing the media on his behalf is vehemently defending their leader’s ghostly presence, saying that he is in ‘constant contact’ to deal with the situation. However, absence of public visibility, seven tweets in the span of eleven days and attached links to crafted corporate PR statements simply are not enough.

So, what are the right steps in managing the crisis?

Validate Concern

Speed and tone are the keys to this initial step. Yes, the company may inevitably suffer in the short-term – but a clear, immediate response with total honesty and humility is necessary. If handled well, it will uphold the company’s reputation and secure the loyalty of its customers and stakeholders. It is crucial to reassure people that the situation will never be repeated in the future.

Saying “no comment” may resonate “we-don’t-care” to the audience. When such fatalities and accidents occur, public appearances by CEOs are important to regain consumer confidence in the brand and its services. As for Micky Arison, his physical presence at the Tuscan island of Giglio (site of  the crash) would have shown much more concern and compassion than his series of statements in 140 characters or less.

Show Action

While the CEO is on the site emphasizing with the survivors and victims‘ families, strong actions are needed to be taken. Such examples can entail full compensation for those affected, implementation of mandatory safety drills before every cruise (Costa did not bother to conduct a lifeboat drill before sailing on this trip)…immediate action to solve the problem.

Surely, the company’s misleading press releases and the disastrous miscommunication of the 30% discount deal‘ did not do much for the lack of credibility and transparency prevalent throughout the industry.

Control the Narrative

If you don’t talk, others will. The faster the company communicates with the utmost accuracy and honesty, it is more likely that the organization will become the media’s main source for information during the crisis. PR experts nationwide are speaking in consensus that “Micky Arison should come out, take ownership, and get in front of the story.” During a period of crisis with such gravity, a constant flow of information -  via Twitter, Facebook, TV/press interviews, etc. – should be generated to demonstrate clear ownership of the situation.

Carnival has managed prior cruise disasters with absolute poise in the past. In 2010, when the Splendor cruise ship was stranded at sea without power for three days, Carnival handled the situation as if it was planned. The constant company updates on social media, highly publicized press conference on site, immediate actions for victims, and humble attitude all contributed to a successful crisis management.

Usually, a company would learn from its mistakes. This time, Carnival will have to remember how  its past excellent crisis control skills got lost in the sea.

To the PR Pros: How would you manage Carnival’s crisis? Do you think there is way to salvage this PR debacle?

Posted Under: Crisis Communications, Digital & Social Media, Public Relations
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