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
’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
’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
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
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
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
’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
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
’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
’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
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
It also started philanthropy to give grants to disadvantaged young
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
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.