Most people have never been on a cruise ship, so their perception of what it entails relies largely on stereotypes and media headlines. It’s up to Rob Zeiger, Royal Caribbean Cruises’ VP and global CCO, to fix that.
"It is a business with its full share of misconceptions and it is an odd paradox, because everyone knows what the ships look like, but very few people actually see them in person," says Zeiger.
Between CNN likening a Royal Caribbean ship to a "floating petri dish," when passengers and crew members fell ill on board last year; to a fire that broke out on one of the ships in July; to a man who went overboard earlier this year only to be rescued by a Disney cruise line, the waterbound vacation option could easily be deemed dangerous by those not in the know.
Further fueling cruise ship stigma is the fact that the vessels must report on crimes – even attempted ones – and publicly list numbers and figures when it comes to incidents.
"The reporting we have to do is unlike most other businesses," he adds. "Hotels don’t have to report this stuff. But because we have numbers out there, with nothing to compare it to, it gets twisted around."
Unfortunate events that occur on the ships often get blown out of proportion, Zeiger notes. With regard to 700 passengers that caught a highly publicized gastrointestinal illness on board a Royal Caribbean ship last year, for instance, he explains that by the time it returned to dock, there were only seven people on board who were still sick.
"The ship came back to port to be greeted by three news copters, 14 news trucks, and 20 news crews; it was like something out of the movies," says Zeiger.
Since the outbreak, the company has created a video that features a "bouncy, clappy cartoon about the importance of washing your hands," to show passengers, he says.
Fortunately, though, fewer than 1% of norovirus cases take place on ships, according to Zeiger, who reports to president and COO Adam Goldstein.
Focus on messaging
To combat the negativity, Zeiger’s main aim is to focus messaging on how fun and affordable a cruise ship vacation can be. "Royal Caribbean is aimed at families who want to do stuff, so on some ships we have skydiving, surfing, rock climbing, ice skating, and ziplining," he notes. "There is something for every generation."
Cruises can be snubbed by what Zeiger refers to as "the high-expectations demographic" – particularly people who have "Manhattan- or Brooklyn-level expectations of food."
Royal Caribbean’s Celebrity line is trying to quash that notion with its recent Le Dîner en Blanc partnership, which Zeiger describes as a "global phenomenon among foodies." Participants receive last-minute instructions about a secret dinner location, and must arrive dressed head to toe in white. Every guest brings their own food, table, chairs, and table setting.
"It gives participants the chance to meet other people and share the food they have brought," he says of the dinner.
As a global brand, the way Royal Caribbean educates and attracts customers country to country widely differs. In a decade at Amway, Zeiger gained a lot of experience in this area and stresses that a good PR pro needs to understanding those nuances.
"When Amway was having an issue in Japan, a colleague explained to me that, in the US, your goal is to say the minimal amount, get it out there, and you have done your part," Zeiger adds. "In Japan, the expectation is that you answer questions in incredible depth, including answering questions people forgot to ask you. If you don’t go that far, then you are not doing it right."
In terms of communicating about ship launches in the US, Royal Caribbean might send a ship into Texas adorned with a pair of enormous, inflatable longhorns, to "let everyone know we are in Texas," he says.
But that kind of gimmick might not fly in other countries. In the UK, for instance, the brand is advised to be a little more understated when holding launch events.
"When we announced our ship there, we did it in a beautiful conference space at the top of a new office tower and we had members of the London Symphony Orchestra playing," Zeiger explains.
All hands on deck for expansion
Royal Caribbean is looking to expand globally, with a major focus on China. Last fall, the brand and Chinese travel service company CTrip.com agreed to form a strategic partnership through SkySea Cruises, a joint venture designed to serve the Chinese cruise market.
This summer, Royal Caribbean launched Quantum of the Seas in China, and next April, Ovation of the Seas will roll out.
But Zeiger explains that cruising is a "fairly new and unknown" form of vacation for the Chinese market.
"If I say to someone in the US, ‘Do you want to go on a cruise?’ they know 75% of what you are talking about," he says. "But in China, that is not guaranteed. The style of holidays people take and when they take them is different. So it’s a teaching process."
This summer, Royal Caribbean tore down its crisis room and replaced it with a new state-of-the-art notification system.
No corners are cut. If a few ounces of hydraulic fluid leak into a harbor, Zeiger and as many as 100 senior executives would automatically get an email about it. The ship notifies the cruise line’s department of safety, environment, and health, which alerts execs. A situation response call with a cast of representatives from different departments is held, if necessary, in a crisis situation.
Meanwhile, the digital marketing team steps into conversations on social media to address issues. And the company has call centers that are regularly briefed with talking points about any potential issues.
Royal Caribbean also has a message deployment system that will text guests about delays and give them advice on the alternate things they might need to do. Travel agents are looped in as well.
When a fire broke out on Freedom of the Seas in July, Zeiger says his team’s comms approach was similar to a telegraph system, providing the public with constant updates. He adds that his team prefers that strategy, as opposed to waiting until they have all the information to send out a press release because "it is a given" that people want to know what is happening as quickly as possible.
Additionally, he must always keep one eye on Mother Nature. Storms, typhoons, and weather issues such as fog can interrupt or alter a ship’s schedule, creating a logistical nightmare. If a ship is delayed, passengers might miss outgoing flights at the next port, so Royal Caribbean must help them rebook. If the ship arrives late at night, it must book hotel rooms. And if the port is Miami during Spring Break, and there are no hotel rooms available, the brand must provide customers with buses to hotels in neighboring cities.
"So take all that, and then double it," says Zeiger, because there are also the outgoing customers who are waiting on the delayed ship.
"It is complex, but we help write letters to the guests and talking points for the captain, and issue reports to the media," he notes.
A delayed ship could become an even bigger problem, depending on who is on board. Zeiger and his team were able to "turn lemons into lemonade" in February, when they found out Ohio State Buckeyes’ football coach Urban Meyer was a passenger on a ship that had been stalled at sea for nearly two days due to fog. ESPN’s Kirk Herbstreit was also on board.
"When we found out, I realized the Twitter following on that ship was probably 20 million people," Zeiger says. "The situation was starting to attract national attention, so we thought we should have fun with it once they were all home safe."
Royal Caribbean posted a tweet to Meyer that said, "Fog, schmog: We knew where we were going all along."
The tweet included a graphic of the ship, showing a dotted line of the route it had taken while being stuck out on Tampa Bay in the fog, spelling out "Ohio."
The idea resulted in a PR win.
"[Meyer] retweeted it, Ohio State put the image on its Facebook page, and positive articles were written about it," adds Zeiger.
Weber Shandwick CEO Andy Polansky, whom Zeiger worked with earlier in his career, adds that he is a good man to have around during a crisis.
"Throughout his career, Rob has demonstrated a keen sense of how to manage critical issues in sometimes complex situations," Polansky says. "He is cool under fire and has developed great instincts for effective marketing communications as well."
Royal Caribbean’s HQ is located in Biscayne Bay, an island off the coast of Miami. Being situated off the mainland makes it fairly hard to leave for lunch, quips Zeiger, but he also attributes the closeness of his team’s internal culture to the unique location.
Lunchtime is important to him and the team, who all eat together.
"Some days we talk shop, other days we talk family stuff," he says. "As we grow the team, the challenge becomes not screwing that up. I don’t think enough weight is given to not screwing up internal culture."
Although Zeiger’s own team is tight knit, he admits the company’s internal comms efforts with its 65,000 employees worldwide – most of whom are based on ships – need work.
"Royal Caribbean never really put incredible focus on talking to its employees," he says. "But over the next year or two, we are really going to work on that."
The company is updating its intranet platform to create a uniform way to reach out to crew members. Late last year, it also issued Microsoft tablets to every crew member around the same time it started enhancing Wi-Fi access on its ships.
"Instead of using an Internet café to talk to their families, our staff can lay in their bunks and Skype with them," says Zeiger. "That has been a big step forward for us and enables us to do more things with employee communications."
Steering comms into port
Last year, Royal Caribbean also updated the way it communicates with legislators, academics, NGOs, students, investors, and journalists by launching its first corporate website. Unlike the brand’s commercial
website, which is aimed at people who want to go on a cruise, the corporate site has an investor section, information about the cruise line’s health and safety policies, and outlines Royal Caribbean’s CSR efforts.
"In the next year, we will revamp our CSR efforts," Zeiger says, who was unable to go into more detail, but explained that Weber Shandwick, which has worked with the company since 1996, has been assessing the company’s CSR priorities.
The site will also encompass content that addresses evergreen questions to aid journalists when a specific topic flares up.
"We aim to be candid, transparent, and quick in all situations," says Zeiger, "so this site will help us do that going forward."
Telling it like it is
Zeiger’s new recruits must be able to communicate with, and be taken seriously by, executives – especially when it comes to a crisis.
Zeiger, who started his career as a staff writer for The Detroit News, says journalists, in particular, are nervier than 99% of the population when it comes to laying out something an executive doesn’t want to hear.
As a 22-year-old reporter in the ‘80s, Zeiger recalls witnessing the governor of Michigan at the time, James Blanchard, berating a janitor.
"The governor turned and tore him up with a horrible abuse of his position," he says. "I was 10 feet away, scribbling it all down, and I wrote the story the way it played out. He wasn’t pleased with that."