Opinion: Costa Concordia and the public relations disaster for cruise

Opinion: Costa Concordia and the public relations disaster for cruise

Steve Dunne is executive Chairman of Travel PR Specialist Brighter Group

There can be little doubt that the recent Costa Concordia tragedy will go down in travel industry history as one of those iconic events that forced a sector to re-evaluate itself.

For whatever reason, the handling of the Costa Concordia tragedy from a PR angle was nothing short of a disaster – not just for the Costa brand, or Carnival its owner, but also for the cruise sector generally.

Forget all the recent developments in PR crisis management such as social media and citizen journalism – the Costa Concordia was a classic textbook crisis, one that followed, almost like a timetable, the four stages of a PR crisis.

That of the golden hour, when the story breaks and all and sundry speculate; the unfolding stage, as events become clear and the media and world watch; the blame stage, as authorities and media search for bodies to blame and finally the rebuilding stage, as the brand and sector start to rebuild reputations.

And it is that first stage, the golden hour, where the cruise sector, to my mind, lost the game. Events and the media were controlling the pace and direction of the story almost from the off, filling those first few hours with “authorities” on the crisis who did not necessarily have the best interests of the industry at heart.

It can be argued that the event happened at the worst of all times from a PR perspective. The story broke on a Saturday morning, just as the world was waking and proceeded to occupy the normally difficult to fill weekend schedules of the rolling news channels. 

The tragedy itself took place on calm seas and in clear conditions making the evacuation process, witnessed on live TV, seem even more frightening. And of course the classic mantra in crisis PR – that a crisis rarely happens when everyone is in the office – rang through loud and clear.

But even given all these circumstances the cruise industry seemed, from a PR viewpoint, unprepared and never really got into the game of putting the tragedy in context.

Suddenly the fantastic safety record of cruising was brought into question. The media rolled out marine engineers who said the ships are too big, evacuation experts that claimed you couldn’t evacuate 5000 people in 45 minutes and people, some crewmembers, giving eyewitness accounts on TV using phrases like “chaos”, “mayhem” and “like a scene from Titanic”.

It doesn’t really matter if the statements of the engineers, experts and crew were true or just speculation – they were filling the vacuum of the rolling news agenda and shaping perceptions of the inexperienced viewer, and potential new cruise customer. And as we all know, perception is reality.

I suspect that had it been an aviation, rail or destination accident we would not have seen the story controlled in the same way by the events and the media. Maybe those sectors have had more crises over the years or just feel more vulnerable so are more ready – but I feel that they would all have dealt with the issue much more efficiently.

So what are the lessons to be learnt?

Firstly, work through, as a sector not just a brand, every possible nightmare scenario, developing spokespeople, quotable quotes, up to date stats and film footage. Clearly you won’t guess everything – no one could have guessed the ash cloud crisis of 2010, but the capsizing of a cruise liner seems a little more obvious.

Next, speed is of the essence in a crisis. Getting representatives onto the news channels and media outlets as the story starts to break is imperative. 

Sometimes the brand at the centre of events may, understandably, be too stretched or otherwise too occupied to do this – and this is where trade bodies and the industry must rally around, for be under no illusion it isn’t just a brand that is impacted by a crisis; the whole sector takes a hit. Fielding informed advocates is vital and the cruise sector was slow off the mark in this case.

Putting the accident into context is vital in these early moments – that helps shape the news agenda. And again, the industry was perhaps not as effective as it could have been.

And leadership is crucial. The public and media want to see strong leadership at a time like this – Sir Michael Bishop during the British Midland M1 crash and Sir Richard Branson at the scene of the Virgin Rail crash in 2007 are classic examples of a brand and sector showing leadership during a trying time.

The cruise industry as a whole now needs to call together all the key PR and crisis management practitioners and work through all the possible scenarios it will face going forward. 

Rebuilding the reputation of the sector starts today and the first step is to ensure that never again does the events and the media dictate the pace of a story in the way that the Costa Concordia did.  

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