Today, an injured Carnival cruise ship finally limped into port. 4,200 passengers debarked, kissing the ground, complaining to the media and vowing never to set sail on a Carnival Cruise again. Millions of TV viewers have followed the passengers’ plight, as day after day of news stories aired about ship-board vacationers stranded with no food, no running water, and unflushable toilets.
Management of the cruise lines downplayed the severity of the crisis, seemingly unaware that passengers were texting, phoning media and sending pictures telling a different story. The passengers are now on shore, but the reputation of Carnival Cruise lines is listing horribly because upper management failed to recognize the PR iceberg ripping at their corporate hull.
Without getting too deep into the chronology of this slow motion disaster, every day seemed to bring another puzzling move by Carnival. The ship sat for a days after an engine room fire disabled propulsion, navigation and sanitation systems. With the entire world watching, Carnival sent one –count it, one—tugboat to the rescue. Back here on land, we all wondered why they didn’t send three or four tugs, or a repair vessel with engine parts and fresh water, or another cruise ship to rescue the passengers.
Earlier in the week, Carnival CEO Gerry Cahill took off his tie and went on camera, reading a prepared statement saying Carnival Cruises tries to deliver a true vacation experience for its guests but failed to do so. Saying “We failed in our mission” without including “we’re sorry and we’ll make this right,” is merely acknowledging the problem without doing anything to fix it. It is not an apology, which was in order.
Finally, today, with the ship in port at Mobile, Alabama, Mr. Cahill apologized to the passengers of the Triumph. He spoke on camera to the media, then went on board the ship to personally apologize to the guests. His effort to accept responsibility, although a bit late, was entirely appropriate.
One can only imagine a ship’s company of lawyers, all advising the boss not to admit fault or blame for fear that words of apology would come back to bite. The legal team always seems to forget that a huge judgment has already been rendered… in the court of public opinion. Americans have already examined the evidence, as every TV network spent at least ten minutes each morning and evening reporting on the plight of those stranded on board and the tone-deaf reactions of Carnival Corporate.
Never mind thoughts of a class-action suit; an even bigger audience, the potential cruise booking public, was given reason to doubt the good intentions of a hospitality giant whose guests were more than inconvenienced. People who decide not to book a cruise on Carnival because of the company’s reaction in time of crisis will cause far more damage than any lawsuit.
How can Carnival salvage this mess? From all passenger accounts, the crew of the Carnival Triumph did their best to feed and care for passengers under very horrible circumstances. Passengers and crew bonded in a way that wouldn’t have happened without the hardships they endured together. No one on board ship, so it seems, has anything bad to say about the crew. It is, after all, the service, personal care and pampering that one gets from the crew that makes a cruise memorable.
Instead of the corporate suits standing at a podium, let the good guys of this story, the crew, tell their side of it. A few anecdotes from the crew about going above and beyond to care for the passengers could help rescue the corporation’s reputation. Passengers might have nice things to say about the crew even when they’re ready to keel-haul the cruise line.
Don’t defend your corporation, Mr. Cahill, praise your employees who did everything they could to see to the needs of their guests. Make statements like, “The crew of the Carnival Triumph deserves high praise for keeping our passengers safe, healthy and comfortable under some of the worst circumstances imaginable at sea.”
Make it about what you did right, and that might be the ultimate take away. Deflecting blame might win in the court of law, but you’ll lose big time in the court of public opinion.