Tag Archives: Public Relations

Travel PR: The Cruise to Hell and Back

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It started out as a fun-filled four-day cruise from Galveston, TX to Cozumel, Mexico. It turned out to be the Cruise to Hell and Back.

When the Carnival cruise ship Triumph experienced a crippling engine room fire one day before it was due back in port, it would set off a PR nightmare for Carnival, a company still licking its wounds from last year’s Costa Concordia disaster, and not too far removed from a very similar disablement of its ship Carnival Splendor in November 2010 All three of these incidents have received intensive media attention, with the Triumph and Splendor accidents playing out in dramatic news stories being reported over a period of several days. As I looked at the monitor in the gym last night, the graphic on NBC News read: Nightmare at Sea. All the positive PR in the world can’t overcome a headline like that.

One question that inevitably comes to mind is: Why? Although they are very rare, disabling engine room fires on cruise ships have happened before. In the wake of the Splendor incident, Carnival set up a Fire Safety Task Force to look at the issue. This is a classic PR tactic, setting up a Blue Ribbon Commission to examine an event and recommend solutions. The more heavy hitters you can get on the commission, the better it looks. It gives key audiences confidence that we have left no stone unturned in our quest to understand what happened and prevent it from ever happening again. Unfortunately for Carnival, it happened again.

A disturbing reality for cruisers is that engine room fires do happen and you may be stuck at sea for five days without power, lights, air conditioning, toilets and other “amenities.” While this type of scenario may be familiar and not alarming to crusty old sea dogs, it’s nearly unfathomable to the thousands of “vacationers” who signed up for a stay in a resort that just happens to be at sea.

In order to increase the safety of passengers at sea, the International Maritime Organization has mandated that ships built in 2010 and later, have two completely separate engine rooms and electrical systems. If one propulsion system catches fire, you can just start-up the other one. But this only applies to new ships and not to the Carnival Triumph, which entered service in 1999. This makes one wonder if discerning cruisers will begin to seek out newer ships with redundant systems, forcing cruise lines to heavily discount travel on older models.

But in the words of another crusty PR dog who shall remain anonymous, “you ain’t seen nothin’ yet,” when it comes to bad PR for Carnival. As I write, anxious relatives are massing on a dock in Mobile, AL, waiting to comfort their sobbing and traumatized kin, who will stream off the ship full of horrific stories they are only too eager to tell to a drama-hungry media horde. The media is already salivating at the thought of bellying up to an all-you-can-eat buffet of first person “survival” stories, while for Carnival’s PR team, it’s just the beginning of a nightmare that may go on for months or years. And for a cruise industry that has all of its marketing muscle behind promoting a fun, carefree vacation at sea, it’s another black eye that has folks questioning its practices and credibility.

So what’s a harried PR pro to do? Here are my top suggestions for Carnival:

Make the affected customers happy at almost any cost. The horror stories that will come off the ship will be what hurts you the most. If Jim and Barbara from Des Moines aren’t happy about the way they’ve been compensated for this ordeal, their stories of pooping in a bag inside a sweltering cabin will just get louder and more exaggerated. You need to do what it takes to get them on your side.

Announce a dramatic and serious initiative to address the problem. The Blue Ribbon Commission usually works well, but because they’ve already tried that once, Carnival now has a credibility problem. They’ll need to add some star power to the effort to give it credibility.

Make sure your side of the story gets out there. The media does a good job amplifying the message of detractors as they pile onto a story. Don’t let falsehoods, exaggerations, unfounded accusations and the like go unanswered. Beef up your PR team so that you always have someone available to give your side of the story.

Define your messaging. Before you can tell your side of the story, you need to decide what that story is. Pull together facts that demonstrate everything you did to prevent the problem, plan for it, implement your plans and most importantly, comfort the customers on the ship and communicate what was happening to their loved ones.

Find some heroes. In the Costa Concordia tragedy, Costa and its parent Carnival took a beating because their top executive on the scene, the Captain, abandoned ship before the passengers had all gotten off. But several of their crew emerged as heroes, saving lives amid the chaos and helping to balance what could have been a very one-sided story. Undoubtedly, there are heroes on the Triumph and their stories should be told.

Time heals all wounds. Like other companies that have faced public relations disasters, Carnival should lie low for a while until things calm down. Marketing during a crisis is flushing money down the toilet. Better to put the marketing machine on pause and then come roaring back when it’s safe to do so.

I have no doubt that Carnival will survive this latest mishap. A good PR strategy will help them get past it faster and come out stronger on the other side.

Update:  Apparently the Triumph hasn’t finished reaking havoc.

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Filed under Crisis Communications, Daniel Durazo, PR, Public Relations, Travel, Uncategorized

GCI Group is Dead

I recently read with interest in the Holmes Report that GCI Group, a member of WPP Group’s stable of public relations agencies, has been merged with WPP sib Cohn & Wolfe.  While no one will actually come out and say it (surprising for the usually forthcoming PR crowd), the inference is that GCI Group will soon cease to exist as a brand.

I was a GCI Group staffer in 1991, assigned to the agency’s Irvine, CA office where I worked on-premises at client Toshiba America Information Systems.  I wrote all of the press releases for the copier division and while it was far from glamorous, that’s where I learned to write (and where I learned to clear copier paper jams).

GCI Group started life as Grey Advertising’s PR division.  The GCI Los Angeles office to which we reported shared a hallway with Grey.  It was an odd relationship because I never spoke to anyone at Grey while I was there.  I had always assumed that GCI stood for Grey Communications, Inc., but I was told, “it doesn’t stand for anything.” Well alright then.

I was happy to move on from GCI Group, but my days there were made fun by my wonderful colleagues Laurie Nalezny and the late great Chuck Ramsey.  Chuck is the one who told me, “When you’re in PR, don’t let the fact that you don’t know what you’re talking about stop you from talking.” 

R.I.P. GCI Group

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A PR Person with a Sense of Humor?!

Almost every organization on the planet does something boneheaded and ill advised from time to time. The bigger the organization, the more likely it is to happen.  When the perpetrators of these errors in judgment are committing these crimes of idiocy, they seldom check with the organization’s PR person to get their opinion before they commit the act. But once the media gets hold of the story and runs with it (corporate idiocy being one of their favorite topics) everyone scrambles to the poor PR pro to make it go away.

I think that many of the PR people (especially you corporate soldiers out there) charged with handling these disasters used to possess a sense of humor about them.  But years of mopping up other people’s messes, particularly those stressful situations where everyone is breathing down your neck, takes its toll and it just ain’t funny anymore.  Thus we’re left with robotic and textbook answers to each and every media inquiry, regardless of the seriousness.  Now where is the fun in that?

It’s odd then that a ray of hope would emanate from the least likely of sources, that being our very own Richmond-based retailer-on-life-support that is Circuit City, and the guy who gets my vote for PR person of the year, Jim Babb.

The backstory is that MAD Magazine ran a parody of the store’s weekly ad that included some unflattering items, such as a Nintendo Wii that was guaranteed to be in stock, “if you’re friends with an employee who hid it in the back for you.”  I personally love that one, because when Wiis first came out I hunted them relentlessly yet unsuccessfully for months until I finally got tired of camping out in front of electronics retailers at 5am and broke down and paid an arm and a leg on eBay.

However, someone who does not subscribe to the theory that all PR is good PR, took such umbrage (and had enough leverage in the corporation) that they had all of the offending MAD Magazines sold in Circuity City stores removed from the shelves.  I’m sure they then said, “Not laughing anymore, are we Alfred E. Newman?”  In PR circles, that type of stuff is the equivalent of waving a big flag in front of journalists that says, “Corporate Idiots Ban Unflattering Media, Please Write About It.”  Not only was it a dumb move because it brought so much more attention to MAD than MAD would have ever received on its own, but the media loves these “book burning” types of stories so much they find them completely irresistible.  

Such was the case with Circuit City and its MAD debacle.  So what’s a PR superhero to do?  Why, laugh of course!  And that was the response of CC’s Jim Babb who (take notes kids): 1) Apologized for the error in judgment, 2) corrected the error by returning the magazines to the shelves, and last, but certainly not least, 3) made a joke out of it.  Jim said, “As a gesture of our apology and deep respect for the folks at MAD Magazine, we are creating a cross-departmental task force to study the importance of humor in the corporate workplace and expect the resulting powerpoint presentation to top out at least 300 pages, chock full of charts, graphs and company action plans.”  He also offered the editors at MAD a $20 gift card toward a Wii.  

John Ficarra, MAD’s editor, played along by saying, “We at MAD were shocked and confused by this entire incident — mainly because we had no idea that Circuit City even sells magazines.”

A job well done:  Jim Babb got CC out of the jam and even put the company in a positive light by showing that it may indeed have a rare sense of humor and MAD got more publicity than they could have ever dreamed of.  

Class dismissed.  Now go out there and laugh!

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