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Is communication shipwrecked at cruise lines?


costa concordia off coast 47180 600x450My husband and I love to travel.

Over the last decade we’ve visited Australia, New Zealand, Alaska, Europe, South Africa and the Caribbean, as well as destinations closer to home including Chicago, Washington and New York City.

When we need a completely stress-free holiday, a cruise is at the top of our preferred destination list. In fact, we’re booked on a cruise this March.

I have to admit I’m pretty nervous about taking a cruise right now. Along with the rest of the world I’m watching with astonishment and horror as the plight of the shipwrecked Costa Concordia unfolds off the coast of Italy (if the video doesn't open in your browser, click here):

My husband keeps telling me, “Don’t give it another thought.” The Costa disaster is an anomaly in the cruise ship industry, he says, and media reports seem to confirm his perspective.

But I’m a worry-wart, as well as a PR pro who’s interested in the communications surrounding the crisis. So, I called Carnival (the cruise line we’re booked with as well as the parent company of Costa) for reassurance. For good measure I also called two other cruise lines to see how they’re dealing with customer uncertainty.

Carnival’s customer service rep sounded genuinely upset about the tragedy. Her voice shaking, she told me, “Our hearts and prayers go out to everyone on that ship.” Next, she told me how important passenger safety is for Carnival and explained that emergency drills are held before going to sea. Carnival crew ensures that every passenger attends.

I had a couple of technical questions about crew and officer training, as well as the construction of their ships, that she couldn’t answer. But she did provide me with the contact information of someone who could help. The call ended with some reassuring words.

Apparently, my husband is correct. Carnival has only had four calls about the tragedy and ships leaving port today are sold-out. She explained that people realize the disaster in Italy is an exceptional situation.

The responses from the other cruise lines were mixed. Celebrity Cruises was the most professional. The call centre was able to answer all my questions, including those about officer training and ship construction. Until the Costa Concordia, they told me, it had been over 20 years since a cruise ship has sunk. [Update: This information is not correct. The MS Sea Diamond sank in 2007 off the coast of Santorini, Greece.]

Disney, surprisingly, gave the weakest responses of the three. The rep sounded like he was winging it, although he did tell me safety is a priority on their ships and muster drills are mandatory.

While there are many lessons organizations can learn from the Costa Concordia tragedy, here are a few from a communications perspective:

1. Anticipate worst case scenarios in advance and prepare appropriate messages.

2. When a competitor is faced with a tragedy be sure to dust off your crisis manual, develop a strategy for your organization and move forward from there. Chances are high that media and other stakeholders will call you for a perspective.

3. If faced with a disaster that causes loss of life, your first message should convey sympathy for the people affected.

4. Depending on the situation, provide examples of how this kind of tragedy is mitigated at your organization.

5. Don’t forget about front-line employees. Call centres and receptionists should be prepared with appropriate scripting to either answer enquiries or promptly forward them to someone who can. Overall the cruise lines handled my enquiry very well.

Bottom line: It’s anchors a-weigh in March.


What do you think of the communications surrounding the Costa Concordia? What’s good, bad and down-right ugly? Would you feel safe on a cruise ship today?

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