Carnival Shows a Crisis Plan is a "Need to Have," not a "Nice to Have"
As I write this, more than 4,000 poor souls have finally arrived on land after being trapped on a broken cruise ship with minimal food, water, and sanitation and no air conditioning for days after they were supposed to dock. The Carnival Triumph towing of this ship to Mobile, Alabama was on the 24-hour news stations daily. The media gathered at the pier in Mobile waiting for them to arrive, which finally came late last night. Any news reporter who could grab a tweet or a line or two from a passenger (who found scarce connectivity on-board) or a loved one anxiously waiting for the prisoners to be freed, ran like crazy with it.
And if you looked at Carnival Cruise Lines' web site during the ordeal, you'd have found a pretty paltry amount of information about the issue and the current status. There was an apology from the CEO and the addition of an extra $500 per person compensation offer, which is added to the covering of their cruise fees (excluding gift shop and casino fees, which adds insult to injury, it seems) and the transportation home for these weary and abused passengers. There was no up-to-the-minute FAQ for anyone who was trying to find out what was happening to their family members and friends trapped on the ship. There was no number listed for people to call for more information. It was bare bones at best.
Freelancer Frances Coleman wrote a great piece noting the importance of handling this type of situation the right way, as U.S. Airways did when the biggest story of their scary forced landing on the Hudson River became more about the bravery of Sully Sullenberger -- seemingly a great representation of their pilot core -- rather than about why the plane had to crash land. She asks why Carnival didn't recognize that they needed an expert front and center answering questions, reassuring everyone, reporting minute by minute what was happening to dispel fears and concerns.
Coleman was singing to the choir here with this statement:
"Public relations is one of those jobs that sounds deceptively easy, as if all you have to have is a sparkly personality and the ability to write a coherent news release. But effective PR is so much more than smiling brightly and handing out fact sheets. It's understanding what people want and need to know, and then utilizing the media to give it to them. It's projecting an aura of confidence and competence. It's being willing to answer every reporter's question, no matter how long it takes or how silly or uninformed the question sounds, without losing patience. It's about putting human faces on a crisis.
"Most of all, though, public relations is about getting out in front of, and controlling the story -- not in a negative way, but by cooperating with authorities, immersing the media in information and demonstrating to the public that you're not worried about your image but, rather, are focusing on making things right."
The biggest learning experience from this disaster -- other than to avoid Carnival Cruise Lines until they can prove you shouldn't -- is that every company needs an effective crisis communications plan that is in place and up to date. The plan should include the right front person who will handle it 24/7, representing the company and working toward a resolution and repairing the brand. Given the way Carnival has handled this crisis, they will have years of negative publicity and ill will to dig through to even recover, let alone repair its brand.
Why is it, do you think, that so many companies don't make a crisis communications plan a priority?