Turning Carnival’s ship around


A view of the Carnival Dream cruise ship moored at the A.C. Wathey Cruise Facilities after a diesel generator malfunctioned causing temporary disruptions, in Philipsburg, Saint Maarten, March 14, 2013. (REUTERS)
Jena McGregor
Columnist March 15, 2013

It’s been anything but smooth sailing for the managers of Carnival Cruise Lines recently. Barely a month after what came to be called the “cruise from hell,” in which its Triumph vessel caught fire and was stranded in the Gulf of Mexico, no less than three more of the company’s ships have been in the headlines for technical difficulties in the last week.

News reports Friday said that the Carnival ship Legend is experiencing issues that are affecting the vessel’s speed. That followed reports that the Carnival Dream had a malfunction with its emergency generator and had interruptions to the ship’s elevators and restrooms, prompting the cruise line to fly the ship’s 4,000 passengers home instead. And last Saturday, its ship Elation received a tug boat escort down the Mississippi River following problems with its steering system.

Jena McGregor writes a daily column analyzing leadership in the news for the Washington Post’s On Leadership section. View Archive

The more recent episodes are relatively minor in comparison — the Elation’s tug boat escort was a precautionary measure, the cruise line said, and only one restroom was temporarily closed due to a toilet overflowing on the Dream. Some customers seemed unfazed by the problems. And the company’s decision to fly the Dream passengers home, rather than have “guests on board without an operational back-up emergency generator,” as a Carnival spokesperson told USA Today, seems like a wise and prudent move in the aftermath of the Triumph debacle.

Still, whatever the cruise line does in response to the recent headlines, the combined impact of all these incidents could still be big. That’s because, when it comes to damage control, there are few things more likely to attract negative attention (other than rumors of human waste on the floor of a cruise ship) than fears that a similar episode could happen again.

Fixing a single PR headache — even one that involves overflowing toilets and stranded cruise ships — is fairly straightforward. Apologize, quickly, and provide restitution for those affected. Opinion is mixed on how well Carnival handled the Triumph fiasco. Some experts give the company credit for its communication efforts, while others critiqued its apparent attempt at Twitter satire and the CEO’s untimely appearance at a basketball game. Still, whatever the blow to the brand’s image, people have short memories, and customers who weren’t on board a smelly ship may very well have forgetten the episode as quickly as the media did.

But having Carnival’s name appear in the headlines again just weeks later, even for lesser issues, is more complex to address. The company’s leaders will have to deal with questions about their management. (Carnival’s CEO said the company has begun a comprehensive review of its entire fleet.) It will have to answer government officials, such as Sen. Jay Rockefeller, the chairman of the commerce, science and transportation committee, who sent a letter to the company on Thursday. And it will be looking for the best way to respond as it becomes the subject of another round of snarky quips on Twitter. (“If you are really hating your job today,” wrote Cook Political Report’s Amy Walter, “i leave you w/ this: You could be working for Carnival Cruiselines. #glasshalffull.”)

In the days to come, communications consultants, cruise industry experts and business school professors are sure to offer plenty of advice. The cruise line should be proactive about putting the recent incidents into context, they’re likely to say. It will need to communicate transparently about the new headlines with customers who have upcoming cruises booked. And the industry may want to advertise about the safety of cruising in general.

But all of that will do little if another story pops up in the coming weeks about more cruise ship technical problems, however minor they may be. That, of course, is difficult to control. But to borrow a phrase from medicine, the first rule for leaders dealing with crises is pretty simple. First, do no (more) harm.

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