Important Crisis Communications Lessons From Carnival Cruise Lines’ ‘Ship of Fools’

This post was originally published on March 28, 2013, on by Steven Fink, President and CEO, Lexicon Communications Corp.

Carnival Cruise Lines is once again in hot water, pun intended, and it appears the seemingly accursed company and its management team have learned little from last year’s Costa Concordia tragedy, and the four more recent crises that struck the beleaguered cruise line in the past few weeks. Regardless of your line of business, there are important lessons to be gleaned from Carnival’s mishaps, and a recent announcement offers a small glimmer of hope that someone at the company has finally woken up.

But first, a fast recap for those keeping score at home:


The worst incident was one that cost 32 passengers their lives about a year ago, when a Carnival ship hit a reef and capsized off the coast of Italy. Closer to home, the recent string of crises began with the ironically named Triumph, and it was anything but that for the crippled vessel or its suffering passengers. For nearly a week, that ship – much larger than that other ironically named, doomed ship, the Titanic – had been aimlessly adrift in the Gulf of Mexico due to an engine room fire. It had to be towed at less than two knots an hour and diverted to downtown Mobile, Alabama – a veritable “cruiser’s paradise” for the bewildered– where it docked and disgorged its angry passengers some five days later. All the while, news helicopters hovered overhead documenting the embarrassing spectacle, as angry passengers texted and tweeted all manner of insults worldwide directed at the company via conventional news and social media outlets. If the din of those collective tweets had been audible it would have resembled a vuvuzela-filled stadium.

Then, in rapid succession in a matter of only about two weeks, the Carnival Elation lost full steering capability and was forced to get a tug boat escort to help it navigate down the Mississippi River in one piece; the Carnival Dream lost power in St. Maarten and was forced to cancel the rest of its scheduled itinerary and fly everyone home; and the Carnival Legend had a serious mechanical issue that prevented the boat from motoring at full speed, thereby necessitating skipping one port of call.

And during these troubled times, the company remained essentially mute.

How is it possible for such a successful company, whose revenues skyrocketed from $600 million in 1988 to $15.8 billion in 2011, to fail so miserably and so consistently when it comes to communicating with its many publics during times of such crises. In last year’s fatal accident, Carnival CEO Micky Arison limited his crisis communications to a handful of tweets on his Twitter account as Italian cruise personnel and the ship’s captain pointed fingers of blame at each other. That served no one’s interests – not the company’s and especially not the passengers’ or the families of the victims. Then, as the Triumph limped along helplessly in the Gulf of Mexico and passengers sent texts, tweets and photographic evidence of overflowing toilets, lack of running water, waste in the hallways and other unsanitary conditions, and reported on no air conditioning in the sweltering heat, hours-long lines for dwindling food supplies, and being issued plastic bags to relieve themselves. Hardly the idyllic paradise the travel brochures promised.

But rather than express empathy for the passengers on the Triumph, Carnival president Gerry Cahill – who was not on the boat and therefore had no firsthand knowledge of rapidly deteriorating conditions – took to publicly contradicting his passengers, saying there were some public restrooms that still worked, while tacitly admitting that most did not. But is this really smart crisis communications – to get into a “pissing contest” with three thousand angry customers with full bladders?

Proper communications during a crisis – with those directly affected as well as with all other relevant constituents – is vital. But the object is to get on the same page with your customers, not go out of your way to antagonize them by calling into question their own eyewitness accounts. What purpose does that serve? Identifying with the customer is a key component of effective crisis communications, and a lesson you will want to remember well when your crisis strikes. Calling your customers liars rarely wins the day.

And so – finally! – Carnival announced that it was cancelling a slew of already scheduled cruises to work on the problems. But the company has already announced the date in May when the ships will return to service, with no guarantees they can meet that aggressive schedule. Prudent crisis management would seem to call for a complete investigation and marine survey on all ships, and no announced return to service until company can assure its passengers that all is well.  Carnival risks disaster if returning ships to service that suffer similar mishap.

But the company needs to communicate with past (and still) angry passengers as well as potential new ones, too. Explain the problems – plural, there are definitely more than one – announce the fixes, and offer steep incentives to win back passengers.

It is a universal truth that in the pitched battle between perception and reality, perception always wins. And once again, the perception is that Carnival Cruise Lines still does not understand the vital essentials of crisis communications, and maybe the same can be said for passenger safety. For regardless of the reality, the perception is that a vacation on a Carnival ship right now is a crap shoot.

 And only sailors like to shoot craps at sea.