ANALYSIS - Crisis PR - Cruise lines weather storm of bad publicity - The smooth sailing cruise industry suddenly hit the rocks in 1998 and 1999, after a string of high-profile mishaps begat negative media reports everywhere. The troubles initially overwhe

The cruise industry has always had its problems with reporters, but until recently, most were due to the exorbitant demands of freelancers on press junkets. Scribes would run up tabs of more than dollars 250 for shipboard spa services, ship items found their way into reporters’ luggage and there were the inevitable shipboard romances consummated in not-quite-private areas on board.

The cruise industry has always had its problems with reporters, but until recently, most were due to the exorbitant demands of freelancers on press junkets. Scribes would run up tabs of more than dollars 250 for shipboard spa services, ship items found their way into reporters’ luggage and there were the inevitable shipboard romances consummated in not-quite-private areas on board.

The cruise industry has always had its problems with reporters, but

until recently, most were due to the exorbitant demands of freelancers

on press junkets. Scribes would run up tabs of more than dollars 250 for

shipboard spa services, ship items found their way into reporters’

luggage and there were the inevitable shipboard romances consummated in

not-quite-private areas on board.



By now, cruise line publicists probably long for the days when the worst

they faced was preventing one writer from punching another for stealing

a pen or convincing a ship’s captain not to issue a citation against an

influential but temperamental British freelance journalist after an

exceptionally heated diatribe.



And they can pinpoint exactly when their serious problems with the media

began.



’It was July 1998 at 6 p.m.,’ says Bridget Serchak, director of

communications for the International Council of Cruise Lines (ICCL), the

Washington, DC-based lobbying and regulatory organization of cruise

industry leaders.



’I got a call from the editor of The Miami Herald,’ she recalls. ’He

said, ’I see a flaming cruise ship from my office window. What can you

tell me?’’



The turning point



The fire aboard Carnival Cruise Lines’ Ecstasy was a turning point.

Seemingly overnight, companies accustomed to a low profile, almost

insular atmosphere, had to adapt to the spotlight. And it wasn’t easy.

’We were fairly reactive, and not proactive until recently,’ admits Buck

Banks, a former cruise editor for a travel magazine, now serving as

senior accounts manager for Stewart Newman Associates, which represent

Carnival and Holland America.



’Cruise lines grew quickly but they still had an entrepreneurial air and

a lack of willingness to address issues that may appear to be

negative.



There was a fear of looking bad and it’s highly competitive as it is.’

According to Banks, after the Ecstasy fire, ’suddenly (the angle) was,

’Bad things can happen on cruise ships.’ It was a lot of gotcha and

copycat journalism.’



The media’s appetites thus whetted, the competition for sensational

stories became intense. ’I’ve gone down to the Port of Miami and seen

people holding up signs with dollars 20 bills stapled to them asking for

their home videos,’ says Banks.



A stream of news stories throughout 1998 and 1999 - many based on

lawsuits - reported sexual assaults, illegal dumping, fire-safety

issues, medical mishaps and deaths and the cruise companies’ freedom

from US corporate taxes. Chief among the outpouring of news stories was

a highly critical investigative series by Doug Frantz of The New York

Times that ran during 1999.



Cruise industry reps say the Times piece was anything but objective, and

one PR pro went so far as to say the reporter was fishing for a

Pulitzer.



’There’s a number of people in the industry and the media who are

puzzled and disturbed about the Times attack,’ says Diana Orbin,

spokesperson for the Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA).

’Some felt there were out-and-out errors in the reporting and others

thought it was one-sided when information to the contrary was

provided.’



Tim Gallagher, PR director for Carnival, the world’s largest cruise line

and owner of Carnival, Holland America and Cunard, says he had

personally written ’three or four’ letters to the editor about factual

errors. ’They were corrected, but the editor never responded to me and

they never printed my letters,’ he says. ’Most of the media have treated

the industry fairly.



But The New York Times had a blatant attempt to write a series to submit

for a Pulitzer Prize,’ Gallagher claims.



Industry fights back



Inspired by a host of negative coverage, including features on 60

Minutes and 20/20, the cruise industry went on the PR offensive in 1999.

One industry veteran gives the industry high marks for last year’s

performance. ’The cruise industry learned a lot about PR this past

year,’ says Kurt Stocker, a professor at Northwestern and former airline

communications manager,who took part in a panel on crisis

communications, ’The Cruise Industry in the Media Spotlight.’



’It’s not what happens but how you behave around what happens,’ he

says.



’In most cases they stood up and told the story.’ But that was not the

case every time. Stocker believes the most damning chapter in this saga

was the one involving Royal Caribbean, which was ordered to pay dollars

27 million in fines for illegal dumping and making false statements,

after arguing in federal court that its foreign registry made it immune

from prosecution.



’Using the foreign registry as an excuse opened a real Pandora’s box,’

notes Banks. Royal Caribbean’s president later flew to Alaska to

personally apologize to mayors of three cities there for dumping in

nearby waters.



The recently elevated status of PR in the cruise industry is best

illustrated by its role in the ICCL, the industry’s regulatory and

policy development arm. Although the ICCL was formed in the mid-1960s,

it didn’t have a PR committee until Cynthia Colenda created one when she

became president several years ago.



Once the negative press began, the ICCL and other groups launched a PR

plan to develop industry-wide guidelines, responses and statements on

issues from handicapped accessibility to safety, sanitation and the

environment.



It also started philanthropy to give grants to disadvantaged young

people.



Press materials and message points mention the numerous agencies - a

dozen in the US plus United Nations agencies and the Coast Guard - which

regulate the industry.



In mid-July, the cruise lines announced, for the first time, an

industry-wide policy of reporting all crimes on board ships to the FBI

or other authorities immediately. The tax issue was addressed with

economic impact statements on the cruise industry’s ’job engine,’ which

generates dollars 6.6 billion in direct US spending and 176,433 American

jobs. The Learning Channel aired a look inside the industry with Cities

on the Sea on December 14.



The strategy seems to have paid dividends. North American boardings for

this past year approached six million. The industry reports bookings are

ahead of last year for January and February, always one of its busiest

times. A total of 60 new ships are in the pipeline in the next five

years, and studies project that passenger capacity will grow 43% by

2002, more than twice the rate of growth compared with the previous five

years.



But there’s no room for complacency. On January 12, Carnival issued a

press release announcing a generator fire in one of its ships. And on

January 3, the trade publication Cruise Week cited ’a senior industry

executive’ in a report that the industry was in talks with the

government about paying corporate taxes. Cruise company stocks dropped

on the news.



Here we go again.



Next week’s feature will look at how the cruise lines are using PR to

proactively promote their industry.



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