The Carnival Disaster: Assessing the Sinking Public Relations Crisis for Carnival Cruises

When disaster strikes companies are thrust into the spotlight and face both remarkable challenges and opportunities. To quickly weather the media storm and to have the best possible chance for success at mitigating long-term negative effects, they must ensure that the hours and days immediately following the crisis are spent communicating clearly, effectively and often. Carnival Cruise Lines found out the hard way that in this 24/7 news cycle and when dealing with a crisis of this size, companies simply cannot afford to take the less is more approach. When a cruise ship from its Costa subsidiary sunk off the coast of Italy last week, resulting in loss of life and dramatic pictures of the hulking ship turned on its side in the sea, Carnival was painfully slow and ineffective in its response.

A statement from its CEO expressing sadness at the loss of life came four days after the incident, a span of time which must have seemed like an eternity to those impacted by the disaster and their families. The statement didn’t include an apology from the company, nor did it pledge any forthcoming actions. Five tweets were delivered on Twitter by the CEO, who clearly has more critical things to do at this juncture than spend his time microblogging, but could have had someone from his staff help him use his account to provide ongoing updates. A total of three press releases were posted to the company’s website between Friday 13 and Friday 19. Information about what the company did to assist the passengers has been hard to come by, and the company’s top executive has apparently managed the crisis from afar rather than flying immediately to Italy to oversee the crisis on the ground.

The situation is complicated, large-scale and difficult for Carnival. That goes without saying. Yet, there are so many things that the company could (and should) have been doing to soften the blow that it has taken as a result of the incident. There isn’t room enough in this article to list all the things that the company would have been well advised to do, but here are some:

Appoint a top executive other than the CEO who could serve as the point person for the media during this crisis. Using the highest level official works best if the person is actually on the ground, highly visible and widely accessible to the press, as opposed to operating in the background. The CEO has so many things to attend to in a situation such as this, so being a conduit for the media may not be the best use of his time considering the tough decisions that he bears responsibility for making.

Fire the ship’s captain, whose narrative of events has been nothing short of bizarre and who abandoned the ship while passengers were scrambling for their lives and ignored an Italian Coast Guard official’s repeated orders to return. Why the company has not taken the step of cutting ties to the person who appears single-handedly most responsible for this tragedy is mind boggling. The captain is already in jail and the company should sack him post haste to demonstrate that it demands a higher degree of integrity and judgment from those entrusted to protect its passengers.

Provide a constant stream of information about what the company has done since the tragedy began unfolding and what it does every day to ensure the safety of its passengers. Surely the company has made strenuous efforts, so why not share them as broadly as possible? What is the company doing to make things right for those affected by the incident? What kinds of safety measures are standard on Carnival’s ships? What statistics can they provide conveying that millions of people have cruised on Carinval’s ships for years without incident? The company should try to get all of this information and more out there into the world in as widespread a fashion as possible.

Utilize social media and the press as a means of getting out information. Rather than reacting to the sequence of events which have clearly spiraled out of control, the company would do well to feed a constant stream of updates to reporters who are covering the incident. Set up a simple website devoted to disseminating information, create a highly active Twitter feed, use a Facebook account, utilize a YouTube Channel, etc.

Put out images to help counteract the photos of the ship. The images that people have seen repeatedly in the days following the accident are video and still photographs of the cruise ship on its side in the water. Where are the images of Carnival’s team meeting with the survivors, visiting injured people in the hospital, presenting themselves on-site in Italy taking charge of the situation, rolling up their sleeves and doing the hard work to correct the situation and prevent something similar from happening again?

Go before the cameras and explain the company’s perspective. The CEO or another top official should be sitting down with a high-profile journalist on camera to talk openly about the many things that the company has been doing since last Friday. Reassure concerned people all across the world that going on a cruise is still a safe and fun experience for a family vacation. Let them know that you see this as a bizarre anomaly and not the type of event likely to be repeated on a Carnival ship.

Send the message that even though this was a tragic and unusual event, the company recognizes the terrible toll the crash has taken and is not simply focused on business as usual. Prominently place on the homepage of your website an empathetic, apologetic and specific statement focusing on what you are going to do to make things right. Utilize paid search and run ads reinforcing your core messaging rather than sticking with the same online ads promoting vacation packages. Try your best to put a human face on Carnival and to convey the company’s commitment to taking care of its customers today and tomorrow.

In short, Carnival has made things harder on itself than they needed to be. Above everything else, in a crisis situation a company must do everything in its power to preserve its integrity and credibility.

Appearances matter, and to date the company has not succeeded in coming across as empathetic, engaged, transparent and accessible. As a result, the company has come under criticism for its handling of the tragedy, and the price of the company’s stock has been badly battered.

However, this tragic accident need not and should not be a death blow for Carnival. It’s not too late and the company can recover from this. By shifting strategy and getting aggressive about telling its side of the story, Carnival should be able to put this event behind it. By acting today, Carnival can start the process of winning back the trust, and the business, of people around the world who would spend a future vacation on one of the company’s cruise ships.

Evan Nierman is the founder of Red Banyan Group, a strategic communications firm specializing in high-stakes and crisis public relations.

This article also appeared in The Cutting Edge News.