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The Ship Goes Down With the Captain

Carnival Cruise Lines’ fire-at-sea and botched rescue mission provide a case study in the multiplier effect of anemic leadership in crisis situations.
Crisis management lessons from Carnival Cruise's "#cruisefromhell"
photo by Jon Worth

Carnival Cruise Lines gained a reputation as the Lex Luthor of the high seas after an engine fire stranded 4,200 people in the Gulf of Mexico for five days in February. Some observers blame the photos of brimming poop buckets that passengers posted on Facebook. Others cite the thousands of #cruisefromhell tweets about four-hour lines for hot dogs, plus more sewage problems. And then there was the stem-to-stern cable news coverage of the crisis unfolding in slow motion.

But, truth be told, the worst PR damage was inflicted by Carnival’s own chief executive and his communication strategy — or lack thereof.

It took nearly three days for CEO Gerry Cahill to address the disaster at sea, and even then many passengers heard his words second- or third-hand. Loved ones monitoring social media for official updates from the company found radio silence on Facebook and Twitter. When @CarnivalCruise finally piped up, its commentary (such as the February 15 tweet: “Of course the bathrobes for the Carnival Triumph are complimentary”) was counterproductive at best.

In the end, some industry pundits believe that Carnival — which owns a 21 percent share of the $38 billion U.S. cruise market — will not suffer for its customer-service and communication flubs. People will continue to cruise regardless. However, that doesn’t change that fact that Cahill failed when it mattered most.

When crisis hits, here are two rules that all leaders — even CEOs of surprisingly resilient cruise lines — would be smart to heed:

Rule 1: Acknowledge, Update, Repeat
“The moment [a crisis] happens, don’t wait two seconds to get the CEO out,” Chuck Mardiks, a managing director at travel PR firm MMGY Global, tells the Huffington Post. “They should have helicoptered the CEO to the situation.”

Instead, it took Cahill roughly 60 hours to issue a statement about the ship fire and Carnival’s rescue plans. Meanwhile, passengers went without flushing toilets or air conditioning, and they (and the press) were left wondering whether the industry giant was disaster-ready.

In stark contrast is the PR exemplar Odwalla, the juice company whose E. coli-tainted apple juice killed a toddler in 1996. Within 24 hours of the outbreak, CEO Stephen Williamson was conducting companywide conference calls, scheduling daily press briefings, and taking responsibility for the disaster.

“I had only my own integrity to keep me sane,” Williamson said in a 2001 Fast Company article. “I didn’t knowingly do anything wrong, but a little girl died because of a mistake that my company made. I was devastated by her death, and I took responsibility for it.”

Rule 2: Social Media Is Not Your Billboard
A 2012 Gartner study found that “75 percent of organizations with BCM [Business Continuity Management] will have public social media services in their crisis communications strategies by 2015.”

Andrew Walls, research vice president at Gartner, says that “in many cases, social media may represent the only available means of locating and contacting personnel; providing stakeholders with the information and assistance they need; informing citizens, customers and partners of product/service availability; and taking other business-critical actions following a disruptive event.”

Carnival updated its Facebook page 20 times and its Twitter feed 67 times during the disaster, mostly offering links to press releases and rarely responding to customer inquiries. When Carnival tried to use social media as a one-way communication mechanism, it was bombarded with thousands of negative replies that still linger without answers.

“I can’t think of a worse way they could have handled it, whether as a maritime issue or as a PR issue,” says Carolyn Spencer Brown (@CruiseEditor), editor-in-chief of CruiseCritic.com, in the Huffington Post.



Imagine if the Triumph crew had posted video of people spontaneously helping one another aboard the distressed vessel? Would this have changed the conversation about Carnival during the crisis? Yes.

“Online video has already become one of the most powerful tools in the crisis manager’s arsenal, yet many fail to fully realize the real-time ability of video integrated with Twitter to break through a crowded online conversation,” writes Dallas Lawrence (@DallasLawrence), chief global digital strategist for Burson-Martseller, in a Mashable blog post. “The question every crisis manger should be asking today is this: If you had a significant crisis occur on a Friday evening, how long would it take you to shoot, edit, and tweet a video response?”

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