Cahill and the Carnival Crisis

Shortly after finally disembarking the Carnival Cruise liner Triumph, AP gathered the departing sentiments of survivor and Huston denizen, Kendall Jenkins, 24, who said “This is my first and last cruise.  So if anyone wants my free cruise, look me up.”

Carnival “Triumph”

After five days aboard the disabled Triumph passengers related experiences of their floating sojourn that ranged from very uncomfortable to outright disgusted and outraged.   Many of the more than 4,200 passengers created makeshift signs that they photographed and posted on social media sites.  Others simply tweeted, posted on facebook, texted, or made short calls to keep up to date their family and friends on every new development aboard the ship.

“We pride ourselves on providing our guests a great vacation experience,” said Gerald R. Cahill, the chief executive of Carnival, before boarding the ship on Thursday to apologize to passengers. “Clearly, we failed in this particular case.”

At 9:15pm central time on Feb 14, the Triumph docked at port in Mobile, Ala.  AP reports that all passengers were off the ship at 2:13am on Feb. 15.  Upon arrival Carnival CEO Gerry Cahill was on the scene to make a press statement and similar intercom statement to the disembarking passengers.

The NY Times reports that Cahill said “We pride ourselves on providing our guests a great vacation experience, clearly, we failed in this particular case.”  A video of Cahill’s earlier remarks during the Feb. 13 initial press conference can be seen on Carnival’s PR site.

According to an article posted on Advertising Age, CEO Cahill promised all passengers  “$500, a flight home, a full refund on their booking on the Triumph, a credit for a future cruise and reimbursement for most of their onboard purchases. The company has also secured hotel rooms in Mobile for family members of people stranded on the ship.”

The “Triumph” being towed into Mobile, Alabama

But is this enough?

Carnival’s PR team leadership seems to think so.  In a “A glance at Carnival’s decisions for disabled ship,” AP reports that “several crisis-management executives who spoke to The Associated Press said Carnival is being deliberately low-key because there is no ongoing safety threat to its other cruise ships — and because past experience has shown that these incidents don’t seem to stop people from taking cruises. ‘I think their PR is low-key because it’s appropriate, it’s worked in the past and incidents like this have not affected their business,’ said Bruce Rubin, a public relations executive in Miami. ‘I think it could cause some short-term bottom line issues because they are going to take the ship out of service. But long term, I really don’t think so.'”

Experts at Advertising Age, CNN, and other news outlets and PR firms are not so sure.  Per PR theorist W. Timothy Coombs expertise on crisis management, there still remains a third stage of management that must be completed.

Pre-crisis, plans must be put in place.  In the instance of the Triumph it is unclear whether or not there were clear plans in place.  As far as risk management is concerned, Carnival has been criticized in social media for not maintaining the ship.  Carnival accounts for nearly 49% of the cruise industry but their ships experience less than half of the engine fires (on average 4 per year) that the industry experiences on average.  According to Advertising Age, the National Transportation Safety Board will be conducting an investigation as to what was the cause of the Triumph’s engine fire, so the effectiveness of Carnival leadership’s pre-crisis planning will eventually be clarified.

Throughout the crisis experts have mixed opinions on how well Carnival dealt with the crisis.  Certainly, Carnival’s PR team was utilizing social media effectively: they have used their facebook page, used two twitter accounts, and fielded the numerous calls from more than 7,000 family members of those aboard.  Personally, reading through Twitter and Facebook, I am surprised by the transparency and openness demonstrated by Carnival throughout this Crisis.

On the other hand, Carnival’s owner, Mickey Arison, who also owns the Miami Heat, was ‘lambasted’ online, reported Advertising Age, for “sitting courtside at Tuesday night’s Miami Heat-Portland TrailBlazers basketball game as the crisis continued to unfold.”

Photo from Kalin Hill aboard the Carnival “Triumph”

Meanwhile, Kalin Hill from Houston texted AP to say that on the Triumph “the lower floors had it the worst, the floors

‘squish’ when you walk and lots of the lower rooms have flooding from above floors. Half the bachel

orette party was on two; the smell down there literally chokes you and hurts your eyes… there’s poop and urine all along the floor. The floor is

flooded with sewer water … and we had to poop in bags.”  The comparison is one that not many stakeholders missed.

So from the standpoint of leadership through this crisis, the critique boils down to this, there was some success and some failure due to blunders.

The kicker for whether Carnival successfully navigates this crisis will come during Post-crisis communication and leadership.  CEO Gerry Cahill and other board members have some difficult decisions to make.  They already have cancelled 12 future cruises, refunded those tickets, and as a result accrued great financial loss, but the coming weeks prove to be a great opportunity if Carnival leadership acts correctly.

David Bartlett, a PR expert, and CNN news opinion contributor, suggests that three things will determine whether Carnival founders or floats in this crisis in his article, “How Carnival can clean up the PR mess.

  1. “First the company must articulate real concern for passengers and clearly communicate what it is doing to make things right for customers.”
  2. “Second, the company must clearly communicate what it is doing to fix the problem and prevent anything like it from ever happening again.”
  3. “Third, Carnival must aggressively and clearly deliver these messages now, and for as long as it takes to restore the public’s trust.”

Some of these suggestions are already being worked out by Carnival leadership.  But, as Bartlett suggests, there is still a long ways to go.  It is likely that Carnival’s PR team who believes that this will simply blow over is outright wrong.  W. Timothy Coombs, preeminent expert in crisis communication certainly suggests that the post-crisis communication is what makes or breaks the change of crisis into opportunity.

Hopefully Carnival leadership can figure out its PR faux pas and baubles, and make clear communication decisions that will ensure that it is out of the hot water, sailing with many happy passengers into the beautiful blue sea.  Only its leadership can tell.


2 comments on “Cahill and the Carnival Crisis

  1. Angela says:

    This is a crisis that without doubt damaged any good perception of the company. The constant bad news that were up in the news for several days left an impression that will last. Yet the refund and the extra compensation treats given to the passengers still gives their audience comfort to choose them. People often see the company as affordable and enough to go on a cruise and that is one reason their business doesn’t seem to be affected as much as it could be after having the same crisis over and over again. Personally for me as a potential customer, an assurance from the company saying that they will inspect and pay closer attention to that kind of details to make sure it doesn’t happen again and that all their ships are safe would of been more comforting.

    Here is a link saying what they should of done:

  2. hdallace says:

    They definitely have a bigger mess to clean up than just the ship. Another contributing factor to their problem is the length of time we were hearing the name “Carnival” associated with a disaster. For five days straight (and a considerable time after), all we heard was “Carnival cruise from hell” and “Carnival cruise passengers suffer…” They’re going to need a seriously sticky, positive ad campaign (and some competitive prices) to get the image of a rotting cruise ship chugging through the Gulf. Red Banyan PR group suggests flooding media with Carnival’s own positive images of their cruises, instead of the disgusting ones we’ve been seeing everywhere:

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