Despite missteps, Carnival’s PR was proactive during Triumph crisis

The company offered constant updates on Facebook about the ‘vacation from hell,’ but one tone-deaf tweet irked a number of people. 

The cruise ship Triumph docked in Mobile, Ala., last night. Based on media and social media accounts, it was a stressful, uncomfortable, and smelly five days aboard the ship.

One passenger told Fox News the smell from the human waste “literally chokes you and hurts your eyes.” She added: “There’s poop and urine all along the floor. The floor is flooded with sewer water … and we had to poop in bags.”

That’s not the kind of customer testimonial that sells cruise tickets—though it probably shortened the lines for the buffet.

Triumph, which is operated by Carnival Cruise Lines, left port in Galveston, Texas, on Thursday. It was supposed to be a four-day cruise to Cozumel, Mexico, but an engine fire on Sunday crippled the boat, leading to a five-day “sewage-soaked” ordeal for the 4,200 people aboard, according to The New York Times.

To its credit, Carnival Cruise Lines has been in front of this crisis, although it still had its missteps on social media.

Chicago-based PR executive Gini Dietrich said she’s been watching the situation closely. “It’s much better than last time,” she told PR Daily. “Although it’s kind of crazy I have to say ‘last time.'”

By “last time,” Dietrich, the founder and CEO of Arment Dietrich, is referring to last year’s Costa Concordia wreck, in which a cruise ship operated by a subsidiary of Carnival wrecked off the coast of Italy. Thirty-two people died as a result. In 2010, a Carnival-run ship stalled in the Pacific. The media referred to that as the “vacation from hell.”

Constant updates on Facebook, and one tone-deaf tweet

Hinda Mitchell, vice president at CMA, a national public relations agency based in Kansas City, said Carnival had better brace itself for the choppy social media waters ahead.

“They had a ship full of more than 4,000 ‘social journalists’ with cameras, electronic communication, and more, all of whom will undoubtedly be sharing those stories with their individual audiences,” she said. “The cruise line can anticipate pictures, video, and storytelling moving at rapid pace through social media platforms—and Carnival is going to have to ride that storm for some time to come.”

Carnival should respond with “caring messages that accept responsibility and demonstrate a commitment to preventing a similar event in the future,” Mitchell added.

Throughout the days-long Triumph ordeal, Carnival continually updated its Facebook page with messages about the logistics of tugging the boat to shore, details on compensation for the passengers aboard, statements from CEO Garry Cahill, and more.

On Thursday night, as tugboats brought the disabled Triumph into Mobile, Cahill issued this lengthy statement, which appeared on Carnival’s Facebook page:

“First, I’d like to start with saying how very thankful we all are that the ship is alongside and everyone is safe. I am so appreciative of the efforts of everyone involved in bringing the Carnival Triumph safely to the Port of Mobile.

“I want to thank the United States Coast Guard, The Port and City of Mobile, Customs and Border Protection, and the countless other parties who have been incredibly helpful throughout.

“I’d also like to thank our shoreside teams for working around the clock to make this happen. And finally, I want to thank our crew for all they have done. We have seen and heard so many reports, online and in the media, from passengers praising the crew’s hard work.

“I am now going onboard to talk with our guests and crew, as well as to help with getting our guests off the ship and on their way home. Thank you.”

According to media reports, Cahill apologized to passengers over the ship’s PA system as they disembarked.

The company’s Twitter feed also provided updates on the situation. Though Twitter users have both criticized and ridiculed the company for the last several days. For instance:

Even worse, the company issued this tweet on Thursday night, an apparent attempt at humor that backfired:

The response on Twitter to that note was one of surprise as at least on person asked whether the account had been hacked. Presumably it wasn’t, because the tweet has not been deleted. Carnival has not responded directly to people on Twitter. In remarks to the media, the company has tried to downplay the sewage aspect of the story, while talking up the work of the ship’s crew.

According to Hinda Mitchell, the company should remain contrite, acknowledging that the passengers aboard Triumph have every right to be angry. The company also needs to stress how it plans to fix the problem.

“Carnival must accept responsibility for both the situation and the handling of the situation,” she said. “Further, they are going to have to publicly state—over and over—the efforts they are taking to address what happened and to ensure that they put new protocols in place to ensure that it doesn’t happen again.”

Improvement from last year

During last year’s Concordia tragedy, the company posted a message to its Facebook page saying it was taking a break from social media out of respect for the passengers and their families. Five days later, the company began posting as usual.

“The very idea that a company would go dark for several days to avoid an onslaught of concerned people via social media only to turn it back on when it was ready is, well, crazy,” Dietrich wrote in a story at the time.

On Friday, Dietrich said Carnival’s constant updates across social media are an enormous improvement from its efforts of last year.

“They’re being transparent and proactive,” she said. “It’s hard to be mad at an organization that consistently updates, talks to people concerned, and is transparent about what’s happening.”

One social media channel that’s a potential blind spot for Carnival and any other organization going through such a crisis is Instagram, where people who were aboard Triumph, as well as those who weren’t, have uploaded pictures from and about the ordeal.

Crisis communications can do only so much

Still, no matter how well Carnival communicates, the Triumph incident will surely hurt the company’s bottom line—a point the Times covered in a story this morning.

“On Wednesday, Carnival estimated that costs including the ship’s repair and the cancellation of 14 cruises on it over the next three months would reduce the company’s earnings during the first half of 2013 by 8 to 10 cents a share,” the paper reported.

The Times also noted that legal costs could ding the company.

On its Facebook page, Carnival said it was refunding passengers of the Triumph, giving them $500 each in compensation, and offering a credit for a future cruise. That offer didn’t sit well with one passenger, who told Fox News: “This is my first and last cruise. So if anyone wants my free cruise, look me up.”

The PR team at Carnival did not respond to PR Daily‘s request for comment, perhaps because they’re dealing with another Triumph-related crisis—one of the buses carrying Triumph passengers from Mobile to New Orleans broke down during its journey, according to CBS News.

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