How Carnival sailed around comms challenges to promote first U.S.-to-Cuba cruise in decades

The PR strategy and execution behind the Fathom cruise line's first trip to Cuba in May was greatly affected by an unpredictable approval process. Because of this, parent Carnival had to plan carefully.

How Carnival sailed around comms challenges to promote first U.S.-to-Cuba cruise in decades

Company: Carnival Corporation 
Campaign: Carnival Corporation makes history with first U.S. cruise to Cuba in half a century
Agency mix: LDWWgroup; Golin Miami
Duration: July 2015 – May 2016
Budget: N/A

Carnival Corporation’s Fathom brand recently made history as the first cruise line to sail from the U.S. to Cuba in more than 50 years.

Last year, Carnival was granted approval by the U.S. for its brand new Fathom cruise line, and its 724-passenger premium small ship, Adonia, to sail directly to Cuba for the purpose of providing cultural exchanges between American and Cuban citizens. The cruise set sail in May.

A major goal for the campaign team was to successfully market and launch the first cruise to Cuba, but Carnival had to gain approval from the U.S. and Cuba to sail.

U.S. approval for travel to Cuba was granted in July 2015. This approval was followed by discussions between Carnival and Cuba to secure Cuban travel approval, which did not happen until this March, with the first sailing on May 1.

The PR strategy and execution was greatly affected by the unpredictable approval process.

The team built a strategy for announcing approval that was based on ideal scenarios and contingency plans related to how and when approval would come and how much lag time there would be to organize before having to go public. A strategic scenario planning process outlined all the different options from ideal to "out of necessity," depending on how much time the team had to execute. Scenario planning also included detailed crisis response and management strategies around hotbed issues related to Cuba.

As part of the historic sailing, Carnival wanted to successfully promote and launch Fathom, the company's newest brand. The PR team also sought to leverage the events in Cuba to showcase Carnival’s "industry leadership on the world stage," as the world’s largest cruise company with key stakeholders, Carnival Corporation CCO Roger Frizzell told PRWeek.

"[The voyage to Cuba] helped broaden the positive conversation about cruising to a mass audience," he said. "In addition, it positioned the company as one that lives its key values, as well as a company that was able to do the near-impossible: negotiate a change in Cuban policy that will positively impact Cuba and the U.S. for years to come."

There was an aggressive media plan for the inaugural May voyage that was designed to match the historical nature of the event. Many media outlets were invited to join the cruise.

LDWWgroup managed proactive media relations and incoming requests from the significant media interest generated by the announcement of the first cruise to Cuba in 50 years.

The team used six news releases, visuals, and social media outreach to tell the story in its ongoing stages from July 2015 through May 2016, including all approvals, developments, crisis communications, and the ultimate celebration of a history-making voyage.

Carnival Corporation hosted an inaugural voyage press conference in Miami on the day of departure, followed by another press briefing during the voyage for onboard media, and several days of one-on-one executive interviews during the trip.

The campaign team invited more than 60 media members onboard for the historic trip, including an exclusive with the NBC family of networks for onboard video. Other media outlets covering the cruise from onboard included: NBC News (Today Show, NBC Nightly News, MSNBC, CNBC, Telemundo, Nightly Business Report), CNN, BBC, Univision, National Geographic, Al Jazeera, CCTV (China Central TV), CNN en Español, Conde Nast Traveler, The Miami Herald, Sun Sentinel, TheStreet, Cruise Critic, Porthole Cruise Magazine, Travel Pulse, TravelAge West, Travel Weekly, ABC Miami, Fox Miami. Also onboard were contributors to the Huffington Post, U.S. News & World Report, Forbes, Fox News, The Dallas Morning News, Chicago Tribune, San Francisco Chronicle, and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Once in Cuba, the team managed one of the first on-the-ground media programs operated by a U.S. PR firm in Cuba, as media joined executives and travelers for activities on the ground in Cuba. Activities included hundreds of travelers experiencing Cuban culture, dining in local restaurants, and engaging with the Cuban people.

Visual tactics included taking videographers and photographers on the ship itself to capture content. The team also hired on-the-ground contacts for shore side content, including B-roll of the ship coming into Havana, along with iconic shots of the ship in the harbor and travelers stepping foot in Cuba for the first time. The campaign team then quickly turned these images into shareable content for news releases, corporate and brand websites, as well as all social media channels for the Fathom brand and Carnival Corporation.

Frizzell explained that the travelers departed the ship to see hundreds of local Cubans waiting in a line that was more than a half-mile deep to greet them with a "hero’s welcome."

"[Local Cubans] told us that having our ship in the harbor provides hope for better relations between our two countries," said Frizzell. "We also had a number of Cuban-born guests and employees who visited their birth home for the first time since leaving the island. It added a very special personal meaning to the significance of the journey."

The inaugural voyage was the biggest Carnival Corporation proactive media relations effort on record, with nearly 9,000 stories covering the actual voyage. More than 20 billion media impressions were garnered within a two-week period. 

Since July 2015, the general Carnival Corporation "Cuba story" has generated over 25,000 news stories with nearly 55 billion media impressions in less than one year.

Social reach was also significant with more than 40,000 tweets about the Cuba voyage and extensive engagement and sharing of news stories across all major social networks.

On May 2, the Fathom website traffic spiked by 500%, based on elevated interest in future bookings for Cuba.

The president of the U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council, John Kavulich, told media outlets that Carnival "acted responsibly within the context of a horrific public relations environment."

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