After the partial-sinking of the Italian cruise ship Costa Concordia last Friday off the Tuscany coast resulting in at least 11 deaths and dozens still missing, the media coverage has been a balance of soft stories (one couple took the cruise instead of marriage counseling) and scandalous (the captain reportedly was at the bar drinking and flirting with a guest as the ship was sinking; another outlet reported that he steered too close to the mainland so he could impress a friend).
By now, those wearing a business hat and watching the story unfold know that Carnival Cruise Lines is the parent company of this cruise ship – and its stock has already taken a hit on international exchanges, and this being peak booking season the cruise industry as a whole will be temporarily battered. Those at the dinner table with friends and family might be exchanging “what-if-it-were us” and “what-a-shames”. My daughter noted – darkly, as teenagers do – that this incident will help ticket sales for the re-release of Titanic this Spring (she might be right).
From a PR perspective, there could be a tendency to proclaim that the cruise line should apologize often, focus on the victims and their families, and be prudent about its commercial promotions for a while, at least. To that, I say: of course – this is PR 101 and 201.
The more interesting challenge is timing – how long, how deep and how wide? Should Carnival distance itself from the subsidiary Costa Concordia? Should it take a different communications posture with consumers vs the media and investors? Should Carnival remove its Google adword campaign promoting special deals, at least for a few days? Strategy comes before tactics, so it will be interesting to watch their communications strategy unfold over the coming days. (What do you think? Please respond below!)
During crises like these, PR departments and agency partners at most companies will gather to take a look at their crisis preparedness plans and make sure they’re air tight. But the existing challenge is not the crisis communications plan itself, but how does PR get a seat at the important table where it can have an effect on performance – from CEOs to GMs to coaches and captains of ships? How can PR be pro-active rather than re-active to the potential crises of our times? This, I submit, is a question we should be asking of the essential PR discipline as companies continue to steer their own ships in uncertain waters.
– Diane Schwartz