Our crisis management experts assess the performance of Carnival Cruises in managing the Covid-19 crisis.
Cruise ship companies have been hit hard by the Covid-19 crisis. Millions of people around the world spend their vacations on cruise ships and traveling on cruise ships is very popular in New Zealand as well.
Carnival Cruises, a multi-billion dollar company, is the industry leader with an almost 50 per cent market share. The company has been hit particularly hard by the crisis, and Covid-19 outbreaks on the company's cruise ships have been featured in the news media around the world.
For example, more than 700 passengers became infected with Covid-19 on the company's ship Diamond Princess during a cruise off the coast of Japan. Passengers on board the Ruby Princess, another Carnival cruise ship, also became seriously ill as a result of Covid-19.
The Covid-19 outbreak was not only limited to the ship, and passengers infected people in New Zealand and Australia after they disembarked from the Ruby Princess during and after the cruise.
We ask our experts for their views on the performance of Carnival Cruises in managing the Covid-19 crisis.
Dr Donald Matheson, Head of Department, Media and Communication, University of Canterbury
Carnival Corporation is a textbook case of crisis communication. When things go wrong, the right things to do are clear: warn people of the risks, show people that you care by doing that early, take responsibility and prioritise people over profit. That's famously how Johnson and Johnson not only survived but built trust in the US when some of its market-leading painkiller, Tylenol, was poisoned with cyanide, killing seven people.
Instead, questions are swirling round the conduct of Carnival. Did it send cruise ships out to sea in March, knowing that they might be carrying coronavirus? Did it make things easy enough for people to cancel or postpone cruises? Did it put a high enough priority on the health of its crews?
These questions are swirling, importantly, not because they didn't simply get the messaging wrong. As Harold Burson, one of the founders of modern US public relations, was fond of saying, the reputation of a company is based much more on what it does than what it says.
Once people are talking corporate negligence and bankruptcy, and once there are problems not just on the Diamond Princess (that has its own line on the global table of coronavirus cases), but also the Ruby Princess, the Grand Princess, the Zaandam, the Coral Princess and more, it's about what the company has and hasn't done.
News media are now trawling back through a long back catalogue of safety concerns, violations of rules, health issues and accusations over the training and treatment of staff within Carnival's cruise ship empire.
Carnival has a chief communications officer and, since late last year, a chief ethics and compliance officer. Their job has to be to remind others at the top table that public relations can't be a glossy afterthought but has to be built into the way the company thinks about the people it's taking money from and the people who work for it.
We should perhaps not be too hard on those two individuals, who cannot shape the boardroom culture and the values of the wider organisation. But the Carnival story reminds us of what happens when a company is not able to hear those kinds of voices.
Claudia Macdonald, managing director, Mango Communications NZ
Anecdotal views that cruise ships are petri dishes of disease have been exacerbated in the past few weeks with the well-reported belief that passengers brought the Covid-19 virus to our shores. Unlike airlines, these ships are seen as 'carriers' not 'rescuers' and the damage to the carefree image of cruising may prove particularly hard to shake off.
However, the cruise industry is well used to dealing with issues – from outbreaks of norovirus to groundings on islands off Italy - their crisis playbook is well and truly thumbed.
Which is why it makes no sense that the industry giants have been so quiet. Their lack of communication to date is not helping them repudiate an already shaky health reputation. The president of Princess Cruises only spoke this week for the first time – more than a month after the first incident.
Lessons learnt from the Exxon Valdez oil tanker spill - a text book case of how not to manage a crisis - include leading from the top, getting your message heard quickly, and getting your facts straight. Carnival and others have been noticeable by their absence. Perhaps their legal teams have gagged them as court cases are pending but, as they say, the silence has been deafening.
No matter how 'unprecedented' this crisis is, Carnival and others should be working on two streams of communications right now: dealing with the issue in hand, following those basic crisis rules, and planning how to rebuild the industry out the other side. The reality is that unless you do the first well, your ability to do the future brand building needed to resuscitate the industry will be harder.
Looking after passengers, demonstrating humility and showing a desire to put things right – now and ongoing, should be high on their communications agenda.
Humans are emotional creatures, which is why the cruise companies will first need to address their primary fear – safety. But the time will come when they can remind them of what cruising offers – an escape from the everyday. It's something we all long for right now.
The cruise industry may well rebuild but there's a lot of work to be done to rebuild trust before that happens.
- Daniel Laufer is a global expert on crisis management and Associate Professor at Victoria University of Wellington.