Carnival Cruise Lines: In Hot Water Again


Carnival Cruise Lines is once again in hot water, pun intended, and it appears the seemingly accursed company and its CEO, Micky Arison, have learned nothing from last year’s Costa Concordia tragedy. Its latest crisis involves the ironically named Triumph, and it has been anything but that for the beleaguered vessel or its suffering passengers. For nearly a week, the crippled ship – much larger than that other ironically named doomed ship, the Titanic – has been aimlessly adrift in the Gulf of Mexico due to an engine room fire. Currently undertow and making less than two knots an hour, the ship has been diverted away from the much closer Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico in favor of beautiful downtown Mobile, Alabama – a veritable cruiser’s paradise – where it should dock in another day or two.

How is it possible for such a successful company, whose revenues skyrocketed from $600 million in1988 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 crisis. In last year’s fatal accident, where 32 people lost their lives when Carnival’s ship hit a reef and half-submerged off the coast of Italy, 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 and especially not the passengers or the families of the victims.

The limited communications from the company lately has been mostly non-existent, too. But, more than 3,100 stranded and angry passengers with nothing better to do have certainly filled the communications void.

Non-stop passenger tweeting and phone calls home reporting the lack of electricity, lack of running water, lack of plumbing, no air conditioning, overflowing toilets, waste in the hallways and other unsanitary conditions, having to sleep on deck because of sweltering conditions down below, waiting in line for four hours to get a hamburger, and more, don’t paint a vacationer’s dream picture. One man, in a telephone call home, reported that because there were no working bathrooms, passengers were given plastic bags “to use for their business.”

Now, in a counter attack, Carnival president Gerry Cahill – who is not on the boat and therefore has no firsthand knowledge of rapidly deteriorating conditions – has taken to contradicting his passengers, and saying there are some public restrooms that still work, while tacitly admitting that most don’t. 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 reports. What purpose does that serve?

Whether every toilet is overflowing or only 90 percent of them is hardly worth debating during these times, and a smart company’s management team should know that. Somehow, you’ve got to persuade passengers that you “feel their pain” and outline what you can do now and after the ship lands to address and redress concerns.

Even if there is nothing you, as the CEO, can do directly, it is important to at least appear to be moving heaven and earth – and the seas – to bring the crisis to a swift resolution. Arison, instead, was seen at a Miami Heat basketball game Tuesday night and was taken to task for it. While the basketball team is another of his business interests, the perception that he cared more about overpaid athletes than passengers who may have scrimped and saved for their dream cruise was poor, and could have easily been avoided. It was reminiscent of BP CEO Tony Hayward leaving the Gulf coast in the midst of the company’s massive oil spill to go sailboat racing on his yacht in England. It’s just bad form, gentlemen, and sends the wrong crisis communications message.

For it’s 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.

But fear not: Based on the company’s recent and unfortunate history, it is better than even money that Carnival will get another chance to get it right.