Carnival's comms head on how a viral video, inaccurate stories led to a PR crisis

A small flood turned into a big headache for Carnival last weekend.

MIAMI: A Carnival cruise passenger’s video of water gushing into a hallway on a ship went viral last week, leading media outlets to call the incident a "nightmare" or "horror story." Some outlets, such as Inside Edition, even compared the scene to the "doomed Titanic."

The flood, which occurred last Thursday on a seven-day Caribbean cruise, was caused by a water-main break and was cleaned up in six hours. It had no effect on the safe operation of the ship, the company said in a statement over the weekend.

Carnival Cruise Line VP and chief communications officer Chris Chiames, who joined the company in February, was livid about media turning the incident into the "next at-sea disaster," he wrote in a post on LinkedIn. He said media outlets covered the story "like a fifth-grade book report," relying on secondary sources.

He specifically called out the Miami Herald, based in the same city as Carnival’s headquarters, for not contacting the cruise line for comment.

"We were readily available and making information readily available, but a number of outlets relied on secondary sources and didn’t bother to check with us," Chiames told PRWeek. "[Outlets such as] the Miami Herald never bothered to check with us on the facts."

He said he isn’t "bashing" the media, but added that reporters "need to own up to the fact that they blew it, didn’t get the full story, or chased another outlet’s story in the rush to publish."

Howard Cohen, the Miami Herald reporter who covered the flood, told PRWeek via email that Carnival's statement to the media about the incident and their response was "prominently included" in the story,  as well as Carnival's response photos that showed their clean-up efforts.

"All I will say is that we wrote a fair and balanced article on one woman's experience on the cruise," said Cohen.

A mix of the video going viral and media coverage amplified the incident into a PR crisis for the cruise line. The video, which has since been taken down, was filmed by passenger Marla DeAnn Haase and posted on Facebook, with the text: "Um....FB folks.....this is a rare moment of internet connection ....we are flooding on a cruise, we heard the violins and the silverware all came crashing down. What in the world....say a prayer for us all."

Before it was deleted, the video had been shared more than 10,000 times and viewed more than 1.3 million times. Chiames said media outlets could not resist "the drama of the water" flooding the hallway in the video. Even after the cruise line said Thursday evening that the journey would continue with no itinerary disruption, outlets continued to report on the matter until Tuesday – some covering the news for the first time.

"That had me scratching my head because by then it was four days old and they were running it like it was [a first-day story]," he said. "My question to outlets covering the news [at that point] was: Tell me what the news is one more time."

The "unusualness" of the situation is what gave the story legs, said Chiames.

"The drama of the video became the story," he said. "Not the fact that the water was off, that section of the ship was restored, and everyone was back in their rooms [just a short time later]."

Carnival Cruise Line has a comms team of seven. NewmanPR, a Miami-based firm, assisted the team with media monitoring in response to the incident.

Chiames said his team got involved soon after they found out about the flooding, which occurred around dinner time on May 3. The immediate focus was finding out what happened. That night, Carnival posted a statement on its website and continued to make information available throughout the process.

The comms team’s main goal was to be as transparent as possible, said Chiames. Carnival specifically wanted to assure anyone worried about passengers that everyone was safe.

"We communicated quickly that things were back to normal, people were back in their rooms, and that safety was never an issue," he said. "We got stills out there to demonstrate that the area had been cleaned up. We wanted to offset the original video by providing the imagery that things had been restored." 

A handful of guests chose to sleep elsewhere the night of the flooding, so the cruise line moved mattresses to the spa for them.

On the Carnival blog, the company said, "We never want our guests to experience anything other than a perfect vacation, so we sincerely regret that we inconvenienced nearly 100 guests."

The company outlined that inconvenienced passengers were provided with a full refund and a future cruise credit as a "goodwill gesture." Carnival also offered to fly the impacted guests home at the company’s expense if they wanted to disembark early; only two of the nearly 100 guests that received the offer chose to do so, the company said.

Chiames explained that he wanted the comms team to emphasize the "good facts" such as the crew’s quick efforts to restore the ship to normal and that passengers were happy.

"We didn’t want to minimize the impact this had on our passengers - whether five, 50, or 100, It was a disruption to their vacation," said Chiames. "But we also wanted to draw attention to the crew and passengers and how they responded. It was the quick, smart work of our onboard crew that allowed for the return to normal quickly."

Carnival also uploaded a video to show that the area had been cleaned.

Additionally, Carnival engaged brand ambassador John Heald, a former cruise director, to post about the line’s efforts on his own Facebook page, which has more than 200,000 followers.

"While the story was dramatic and there was a lot of national news interest, we felt like we were being able to respond effectively to all those requests by directing people to our posts and available content, versus sending it out more broadly to outlets who, until then, hadn’t even cared," said Chiames.

Have you registered with us yet?

Register now to enjoy more articles and free email bulletins

Register
Already registered?
Sign in