CAMPAIGNS: P&O faces up to media over Aurora illness - Crisis Management

Client: P&O Cruises PR Team: In-house Campaign: Response to illness on the Aurora Timescale: 31 October-7 November 2003 Budget: undisclosed

P&O cruise ship Aurora was refused entry to the port of Piraeus in Greece after 430 passengers contracted a highly contagious stomach virus.

National and international press picked up the story, which escalated further when Spain decided to close its borders as the ship docked in Gibraltar.

By the time the Aurora reached the UK, it had sparked off a diplomatic row, as more than 500 of its 1,800 passengers had fallen ill. News that a couple from Channel 4's Wife Swap were on the cruise, and that two elderly passengers had died onboard of natural causes, added fuel to the media frenzy.

Objectives

To manage the crisis as effectively as possible. To minimise the damage to P&O's image and ticket sales.

Strategy and Plan

P&O PR manager Bronwyn Griffiths was in Palma for a travel convention when she received word that the ship was likely to be refused entry to Piraeus. She immediately rerouted all calls from the UK press office to her mobile, issued a statement to the newswires and sent one of her team to Greece, so that there would be a P&O spokesperson on the ground to put the company's message across to the press.

'We were quick to emphasise that less than a third of the total number of passengers had caught the disease,' said Griffiths.

In order to have consistent control over the message going out to the press, Griffiths decided only she and MD David Dingle would be available for comment.

When Spain closed its borders after the ship docked at Gibraltar, Dingle and Griffiths flew out to Gibraltar to speak to the press and authorities, and then flew back to the UK on Monday in time for the ship's return.

This meant they were always accessible to the press wherever the story was.

'We were on the phone constantly, day and night,' Griffiths added.

Measurement and Evaluation

There were around 650 broadcast references to the story and all the national and regional radio and TV channels covered it.

More than 500 print stories about the crisis appeared in national and regional newspapers, and the Wife Swap couple posed nude for the Daily Sport. Reporters from France, Spain, Italy, Germany, Hungary, Argentina and Australia contacted Griffiths about the story and Dingle took part in 70 interviews.

Results

Just 20 people cancelled tickets for P&O cruises, which is no more than usual.

The press team denied allegations that the Aurora's prices have been slashed as a result of the illness, but confirmed discounts on pre-Christmas cruises were already in the marketplace.

'The worst thing a company can do in this sort of situation is pretend it isn't happening, but P&O didn't do this,' said Daily Telegraph transport correspondent Paul Marston. 'It was accessible, helpful, and reasonably good at giving the press information.

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