Yesterday brought an end to the second major scandal that put Carnival Cruise Lines PR efforts to the test. Passengers were finally able to disembark from the Carnival cruise ship Triumph. Over the past few days, their trip has widely become known as the “cruise from hell.”
As the boat floated in the Gulf of Mexico without power, passengers were forced to endure days on end with rationed food, no showers and non-working toilets that created highly unsanitary bathroom conditions. Worldwide press has not shied away from highlighting the squalid condition on board. The sheer volume of media reports around the ill-fated voyage of the Triumph was astronomical.
Had this been the only Carnival public relations challenge in recent memory then it would have had plenty with which to contend. However, the fact that this was the second such incident in just over 13 months made it particularly difficult for the company.
During the Costa Concordia emergency there were a number of serious Carnival PR errors which created an exponential number of problems for company. That crisis was graver in that it involved the loss of dozens of lives. Media reporters indicate that during the Triumph ordeal no passenger or crew member was killed or even injured.
To their credit, this time around Carnival did a number of things right in terms of crisis communications, which probably served to soften the blow. It would have been unrealistic for the company to position itself favorably, given the facts. However, Carnival was correct to emphasize the important message that its focus was on ensuring the safety of the passengers and that this trumped all other considerations.
Carnival could have attempted to remove the passengers from the ship, but doing so would have created huge risks far beyond the realm of public relations. The company smartly erred on side of caution by not subjecting passengers to the dangers of trying to have thousands of people of all ages disembarking while at sea.
Though conditions were abhorrent and passengers were unquestionably uncomfortable and upset, it appears they were not subject to physical danger, which means that Carnival did fulfill its most essential responsibility to keep its customers safe.
Carnival CEO Gerry Cahill was wise to emphasize the company’s unflagging commitment to passenger safety when he spoke publicly. On Thursday, he offered a strong public apology to passengers in which Carnival accepted responsibility for what took place. “Clearly we failed in this particular case,” Cahill said.
In terms of concrete steps that Carnival took on behalf of passengers, the company certainly appeared to do what it could to make amends in a financial manner. Carnival reimbursed all passengers, gave them credit to use toward future cruises (although it’s hard to imagine many of them utilizing such vouchers), provided each passenger with $500, and even compensated them for any losses at the ship’s casino tables.
Under any circumstances, enduring a crisis of this magnitude would have been highly damaging to the company and its brand. Given that this was the second incident in just over a year for Carnival, it was infinitely more challenging. However, it does appear that Carnival learned and grew from its past PR mistakes. This time, it seems there was a Carnival crisis PR strategy in place that the company drew upon.