Carnival Splendor–how they doing?

Since I was just asked by Ragan Communications for a few comments on the Carnival Cruise crisis, I’d thought I’d share my thoughts with you.

1) Crises like these have almost as much impact and risk for all major players in the industry as they do on the company involved. I suspect many are fielding questions about safety, fires on boards, how prepared they are, as well as having people cancel cruises out of fear of something similar happening. Not just Carnival but every cruise line needs to communicate about what happened, what went wrong, why it had such a huge impact on the passengers, and what changes are being made to prevent this. Even die-hard cruisers, (like may parents) have to be shaken a bit by the stories coming off the ship. I did a quick check of Holland America (my favorite line) and Princess. Neither had anything on their website about it. You might think, well, why would they, it’s not their event and they shouldn’t be seen as piling on the competition. Right. But their passengers and the media have questions for them–like are their ships different so that what happened to Carnival won’t happen to them. Are they any better prepared, etc. An FAQ about the incident as it relates to them, without any finger-pointing, seems to me to be appropriate and helpful for the future of the industry–let alone their business.

2) Media coverage changed significantly once the ship came in cellphone range. Before it was info from Coast Guard and the company, after, the coverage shifted to those who were most upset and would say entertaining things, like how bad it smelled, rotten food, etc.

Let’s be very clear about what to expect from the media in an event like this: they are competing for your eyes. To get that they are not going to focus on those passengers (probably vast majority) who are putting up with the discomfort with grace and patience. Simply not entertaining. But if they find some person who is truly outspoken, passionate, p-d off, or someone who’s health or mental state has been negatively impacted, that’s where they are going to go. Is it because they are mean and nasty? No, its because they are doing their job and trying to stay alive. But that reality makes it very difficult for Carnival–and all the other cruise lines. Because you cannot avoid the impression that this event is a complete and utter nightmare for everyone–and all cruisers take this risk.

3) Carnival seems to be engaged with Twitter, less so with Facebook. In my mind they need to keep up almost a continual chatter on Twitter given all the discussion going on there now because a review of the conversation doesn’t appear to include them. Can’t really do a tweet or two every hour or so and really be part of the conversation. They could do a better job of really engaging with their passengers and the Twitter community. Similar to my comments below about their statement, their tweets and Facebook wall comments are in the old-fashioned press statement mode that just looks jarring in the social media world. It’s cold, impersonal, even slightly legalese. It’s what you expect out of a PR department and frankly, the social media world has almost no patience or sympathy for it. Communications people need to understand the dramatic culture shift that has occurred. Having PR people use Twitter with the same language they’ve learned to use over the years is like watching a monk enter a sports bar–there’s just something jarring and disquieting about it.

4) A statement on the website was posted but it is almost invisible and when you open it, the message is pretty disappointing. A lot of facts but not much empathy. Finally you get to an apology from the CEO. Good job on explaining what they are doing to make it right–it seems the very least they could do. But the message should start with a much much stronger message of apology, of empathy, of recognition of the discomfort and anxiety they have caused.

There is very little to suggest in that statement that they have any real recognition of the revulsion that most are feeling when hearing about the smells, having to clean toilets, rotten food, endless sandwiches, sleeping on the deck, etc. These are filling the news reports but the company response seems focused on the bare facts of passengers, time of arrival, offer of another cruise, etc. Something really important missing here.

By having a single small line on their website it really communicates the wrong message. I don’t think you want to have it completely dominant or an incident specific site totally replace it, but it has to not look like you are minimizing the event. An incident-specific website with much much much more detail about what is going on is critical, and a link on the main site to that incident site should be much stronger and more visible. Plus a big message on there that says: We are really really sorry.
5) John Heald’s blog–this is the best part of their communication so far. John is the cruise director and apparently carries on an on-going conversation with his passenger/clients through his blog. It’s almost too bad on his blog he has to distance himself from the official voice of Carnival. This is the kind of thing that should be official from the company. It is warm, human and honest. I do really like the fact that he is pointing out the reality of media coverage “big hair reporter talking to Mr. Angry”. While it is dangerous of the company to highlight the probably vast majority of passengers who were taking it all in good spirit, John can do that here more freely. If I was heading up communications for Carnival right now I’d say, John, go at it. The more he does and becomes part of the conversation the better for Carnival.

6) There are some ways that Carnival should pick up on some of John’s messaging. Their official statement should have been much warmer, personal, apologetic and mostly appreciative of the good graces of the thousands of passengers who endured what they put them through. They should really emphasize that against the totally expected torrent of media reports showing the most angry and vindictive.