On March 9, 2013, my husband and I sailed on the Carnival Dream as we celebrated our honeymoon. We were treated to the usual cruise luxuries—hot meals, unlimited soft drinks and beautiful ocean views. Carnival treats its customers well, and we were confident that the company had learned from the Carnival Triumph engine room fire. Unfortunately, our high hopes were dashed as we found ourselves stuck in port with more than 5,000 passengers and crew five days into our voyage.
It has not been a good year for Carnival. Still reeling from the Costa Concordia tragedy last January, Carnival’s latest mishaps aboard the Triumph and Dream have led to an increasingly souring reputation. But Carnival’s biggest missteps have little to do with a few incompetent captains, failing generators and overflowing toilets. While these mistakes launched the PR crisis the company now faces, it’s the mishandling of information, broken promises and lack of a clear plan that have caused the worst dents in the cruise line’s reputation.
1. Don’t Make Promises that Cannot Be Kept
On March 13, when engineers discovered a problem with the backup generators, the captain made the wise decision to remain in port rather than risk a voyage with only one operable generator. It was the right thing to do. The cruise director immediately took to the ship-wide announcement system and informed guests of the trouble. Unfortunately, while the director’s news appeased passengers who worried about the missed departure time, this was also when Carnival’s leadership made their first mistake.
The captain and cruise director assured us that we would be leaving that night, and our arrival time in Orlando would be unaffected. Two hours later, when we still had not left port, the same promise was made. And in the last message of that night, as many guests were settling into bed, staff assured us that everything would be resolved by morning.
So, when we woke the next morning to see the beautiful St. Martin coastline, we were less than thrilled.
While Carnival was right in keeping guests informed, customer confidence in the company started to fail the moment the promised deadlines passed. It is important to update those people affected and to reveal steps your organization is taking to correct the issue, but if your spokespeople cannot speak with 100% certainty, committing to a specific timeline is a mistake.
2. Assume Your Customers Are Connected
At approximately 2:30 AM – ship time – someone on the boat contacted the media. The story was riveting: Toilets were overflowing, elevators were broken and another Carnival ship was stuck! As quickly as Carnival had provided information to guests on the boat, these guests beat them to the media. In the wee hours of the morning, an email to CNN revealed titillating details that were not entirely accurate. By the next morning, Carnival had tweeted links to an official statement, but the first story had already caught media attention.
You must assume that your customers have smartphones, and they are taking photos, sharing tweets and posting to their Facebook timelines. Even in international waters with limited access to the Internet, someone shared the news – I’m only surprised it took until two in the morning.
3. Integrate Crisis Communications
Carnival’s early efforts to keep guests informed soon gave way to silence as additional deadlines passed. More than 24 hours later, none of us knew anything substantive with regard to the ship’s problems and our revised itinerary. The cruise director had informed guests that she was on the phone with Carnival’s Miami headquarters, but as of 11:30 that night, no one knew how they were getting home, when their flights were leaving or what to do with their luggage. People were confused and angry even as Carnival promised refunds and discounts. We didn’t want gifts – we wanted to know how and when we were getting home.
But Carnival didn’t have the answer.
In an industry where expected variables include mechanical disruption, human error and acts-of-God, a crisis communications plan should be integrated into the operations manual. As the engineers worked on the malfunctioning generator, the cruise director, or another spokesperson for the brand, should have been able to turn to a crisis communications plan that included clear steps and solutions. Carnival’s inability to provide information to onboard guests in this situation is testament to the absence of an integrated plan—they were winging it.
This could have been a story about how Carnival overcame its PR woes and retained its customers, but it’s not. The cruise line didn’t just fail the cruise guests who sailed with the Dream or Triumph. Because of the company’s poor response in the wake of mechanical failures, its present and future customers no longer trust the brand, and it’s going to take years for Carnival to rebuild that trust.