Cruise director uses blog in comms crisis strategy

Social media emerged as a key channel for Carnival Cruise Lines in its crisis communications response to the fire-damaged Splendor, which was towed into San Diego port early Thursday.

SAN DIEGO: Social media emerged as a key channel for Carnival Cruise Lines in its crisis communications response to the fire-damaged Splendor, which was towed into San Diego port early Thursday.

In addition to proactively distributing news to media, Carnival also communicated updates “by posting on our various online and social media properties, including carnival.com, Facebook, Twitter and carnival-news.com,” Jennifer de la Cruz, director of PR for Carnival, tells PRWeek in an e-mail. “The ability to use multiple avenues to get updated information out was extremely helpful but also requires a lot of resources and a closely coordinated effort.”

De la Cruz also tells PRWeek that, “Our key messages have focused on providing assurances that everyone was safe, the status of the situation on board and any updates to the plan for returning the ship to port and, of paramount importance, communicating our apologies and acknowledging the difficult environment on board.“

Carnival currently has a PR team on the ground in San Diego, where the ship's cruise director, John Heald, is expected to conduct a number of media interviews later today.

On Wednesday, Heald made a post about the conditions on Splendor on his popular personal blog. Carnival also posted his blog post on its own website.

 “There will be those who will say this has been ‘the cruise from hell,'” he wrote. “However, when you see the local news reporter with the huge hair talking to Mr. Angry remember that there are many many many many more who will tell you what they have been telling me and the crew and that is that Carnival as a company have done everything they can and continue to do so to help them through this difficult situation.”

The comments he made in the blog post were picked up by major media outlets.

Chris Gidez, head of US crisis/issues management group for Hill & Knowlton, calls the early blog post by Heald “brilliant. The first rule in crisis management is to regain control of the agenda and conversation.”

He says that's especially important in a situation like this, where passengers are now starting to talk to media and no doubt will share their own detailed accounts online. “The cruise community is very engaged and active online. There will probably be video shared too, and it will likely go viral,” says Gidez. “While we can expect to hear stories of long lines, no air conditioning, rude crew members, etc., there will be just as many who applaud the performance of the line.”

Some influential travel websites have already weighed in Carnival's response to the crisis. Tnooz.com, for instance, was critical of the company's initial response in terms of social media, saying its updates were not timely and they failed to respond to user comments. However, Tnooz.com did note Carnival later improved both its frequency and engagement of those channels.  

In terms of on-board communications, Heald wrote in his blog that he made continuous announcements from the bridge to keep guests informed. “Sometimes when there is nothing new to tell them I just use the PA system to say hello and hope everyone is OK.”

Harlan Loeb, EVP, director of US crisis and issues management for Edelman, said frequent and reassuring on-board communications will likely go a long way to creating goodwill for the line.

“The tragic mistake in many of these cases is that the senior personnel hunker down, not to avoid communicating, but just because they are so focused on solving the problem,” says Loeb. “There was almost a celebrity dimension to this crisis because it played into that universal fear of being lost at sea. So Carnival needed to do whatever it could to reassure travelers both on and off the ship.”

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