PR Team: Cunard in-house team/A&P in-house team/Lexis PR
Campaign: 1996 Refit of QE2
Timescale: October - December 1996
Budget: pounds 19,000
Luxury cruise operator Cunard’s last refit of the QE2 liner in 1994 will
go down as one of the PR disasters of the 1990s.
The press revelled in passengers’ tales of their ’cruise from hell’
(Daily Mirror) on an unfinished ship in which sharp edges snagged ball
gowns, toilets didn’t flush and cabins became paddling pools.
Cunard was subsequently criticised for reacting to, rather than
controlling, passenger complaints and the fiasco was extended over a
whole media month.
So, for the 1996 refit, Cunard was understandably keen to avoid another
drubbing. In the summer of 1996 it had appointed Robyn Griffith-Jones,
former head of marketing and PR for the V&A museum, to the new role of
head of communications, and it retained agency Lexis PR.
To minimise potential negative coverage and ensure the media’s treatment
of the refit was as positive and accurate as possible.
Cunard ensured that the PR implications of all activities were
understood internally and were part of the decision-making process at
the highest level. It made efforts to integrate its own communications
resources with those of A&P, the shipyard handling the refit, to create
a more tightly controlled team. Lexis was involved in regular meetings
to provide issues management support.
The agreed strategy was to be open and honest with the media, admitting
that it had got it wrong in 1994. The team organised briefings with the
Sunday Times and trade publication Lloyd’s List to explain the refit
process and create a broader public understanding should the refit
overrun. There was a deliberate attempt to focus media attention on the
activity of refit rather than Cunard itself.
No Cunard staff, crew or contractors were allowed to speak to
journalists without approval from the communications team and key
spokespeople were media-trained. Up-to-date footage of the ship was
given to TV crews with factual briefing packs.
The team organised a media briefing at the A&P shipyard on QE2’s
(slightly delayed) entry into dry dock, creating photographic
opportunities. A 24-hour PR presence was maintained during the refit to
liaise with inquisitive journalists. On completion of the refit, a press
conference was held on board.
National TV, radio and press covered the QE2 entering dry dock with
inevitable references to 1994, but this time with Cunard or A&P comment
about the preparations.
The main TV news programmes covered the completion of the refit and
featured Cunard spokespeople. News at Ten ran a nationalistic piece with
the famous Big Ben chimes replaced by the QE2 horn. Regional BBC and ITV
bulletins used live links with Cunard spokespeople. Although the press
wrote about the delay in going into dry dock, they wrote little about
the completion of the project.
A clear case of once bitten, twice shy. But it seems Cunard learned its
1994 lesson well. The preparation was thorough, the strategy to focus on
operational issues was sound and the hungry media were held largely at
Griffith Jones says: ’Until two days before she came out of dock we
didn’t know whether the refit was going to be a success, so we had to
plan for either eventuality.’ Fortunately for Cunard ’Plan B’ was never