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Carnival’s Cahill Salvages PR Triumph

Don’t you wonder about that first call from the Carnival PR team to the CEO?

Um, Cap, problem in the Gulf.

What time is it? And don’t call me Cap!

The Triumph’s stranded; 4,000-plus on board. CNN’s leading with “busted toilets, hot rooms and headaches.”

Ok, get everyone together. I’ll be right in.

Carnival. Triumph. Unfortunate names when a crisis breaks out, unless you’re a headline writer who lives for such irony. Carnival’s fleet also includes the Legend, Conquest and Elation.

The drama began last Sunday when an engine room fire broke out as the Triumph was heading back to Galveston, Texas. No one was hurt, but the ship wound up adrift off Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula.

Sounds kind of idyllic, right?

Rolling waves, gorgeous sky, white sand beaches. Not if you’re stuck on a hot, smelly ship. News accounts soon began detailing conditions that were far from what passengers expected when they signed up.

Enter Carnival CEO Gerry Cahill, who went public mid-week with a video that offers an interesting study in crisis management. Dressed as you might expect of a cruise line exec (dark sports coat, blue dress shirt, no tie), Cahill began with an apology that he repeated three times in six minutes. He also:

– Stepped up and quickly owned the mess, saying, “We did not deliver on our promise.”

– Showed the proper concern, citing as top priorities safety, comfort and getting everyone home fast as possible.

– Lifted the corporate veil, revealing that the company, while trying to get power up after the fire, also contracted for two tugboats just in case …

– Outlined an action plan that included charter flights and hotel rooms.

– Repeated key messages, tossing in compliments for the stranded passengers, their families, and his own employees.

Of course all this came against a flood of reports about worsening conditions.

“Horrible,” one passenger told CNN as the ship was finally yanked into port late Thursday.

Still, stuff happens, and companies have to deal with it. Nothing Cahill said was worth more than the praise that beleaguered passengers had for the crew. That’s powerful, given their miserable days aboard a ship without toilets or electricity.

Carnival can also take heart from Toyota, which not so long ago was dealing with sticky gas pedals. Toyota recently reclaimed the title of world’s largest automaker.

And you may remember Exxon reeling in 1989 after the Valdez oil spill. PR pros still use then-Chairman Lawrence Rawl’s CBS interview as a study in how not to do it. Yet Exxon just overtook Apple as the nation’s biggest company.

All of which suggests that the embattled cruise line has taken on some water, but is far from sunk.

Would you book a cruise on Carnival right now?

Cahill press conference.

CNN Triumph report.

Read more posts by Steve Piacente, a former print journalist and correspondent.

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8 Responses to "Carnival’s Cahill Salvages PR Triumph"

  1. M Christine says:

    No, I would not book a cruise on Carnival, now or ever.

    Great article, and keen insight on effective damage control.

  2. Thanks, M, it will be interesting to see how long and how deeply the ill-fated voyage impacts the company.

  3. Charlotte Tomic says:

    Good insights, Steve. I think people will forget this cruise issue like they did eventually with the Costa line, however, it shows you that luckily it wasn’t deadly and that the cruise ship did what had to be done to bring the boat to shore. They might want to take better measures to deal with this kind of crisis in the future in terms of sanitation (back-up – excuse the pun) and power so that it doesn’t appear that only the top floors with the better rooms were able to breathe fresh air and take showers.

  4. If it happened once, it could happen again. I think they’ll pay a far heavier price if they’re not better prepared the next time. Thanks very much for your comments, Charlotte.

  5. Rebecca Vander Linde says:

    I agree! Carnival PR as well as their captain and crew made the best of a bad situation and should, by all accounts, be commended. It’s a shame CNN also made the best of (I.e. capitalized on) this bad situation with their sensationalized, wall-to-wall coverage. It was undoubtedly a newsworthy story, but this wasn’t a ship of refugees seeking asylum or anything close to the Costa Concordia disaster. I’m not minimizing the ordeal or the Carnival passengers, but while Carnival reacted appropriately and proportionally to the incident, I don’t believe cable news media did.

  6. Interesting take, Rebecca. Makes you wonder what wasn’t being covered during the Triumph odyssey.

  7. Robert Buckley says:

    I would think that Carnival had a very good crisis communication plan in place before the disaster. Most communication experts were highly critical of Penn State and government scandal agency because they lack crisis communication plans. Agood crisis communication plan might prevent an organization from hitting rock bottom.

  8. Rock bottom is a good metaphor given the situation, Robert. And yes, it seems clear that Carnival’s team knew precisely what to do as soon as the crisis erupted. Thanks for your comment!

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