Cruise Ship Crisis: What the PR Industry Should Be Talking About

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




  • Paul Smyth

    Safety is a factor that can have less traction when there is no perceived danger (how many people listen properly to pre-flight airline safety briefs?). An accident creates a window in which to emphasise safety aspects (e.g. overall safety record & forthcoming safety initiatives) and especially to show how seriously a company takes this issue (i.e. by the way it pursues the truth in a safety inquiry and deals with any breaches of procedures or standards etc). Obviously, that only has a positive effect if the accident was despite and not because of the company’s approach to safety. If in this case the company has a good approach to safety and the Captain is proven to be culpably negligent, then there is the possibility to differentiate (to a degree) between the company’s standards and the behaviour of an individual. That said, the company will have to explain why it allowed him to have command of a ship and announcing a thorough review of the selection, training, and ongoing monitoring of ships officers may help reassure future customers. The motivation provided by a disaster may produce a better performance and perhaps even help create an improved reputation.

  • Kari Fluegel

    As you say, “Strategy comes before tactics” which is why I submit that companies that believe their crisis preparedness plans are “air tight” are doomed to failure in today’s world. Crises move faster than ever before. News of “Sully” Sullenberger’s miraculous landing on the Hudson River was spreading across Twitter before the US Airways Communications Office was notified of the incident. Too often, communicators find themselves running to catch up with the story because the story is ahead of their checklists.
    “Air tight” plans often fail because of a lack of imagination. No one ever imagined that terrorists would fly planes into buildings, and landing was considered the safest part of a Shuttle flight. Organizations today must have crisis communications plans that are adaptable and flexible. Companies should examine their crisis plans in light of this tragic accident; however, they should look to see if they are flexible enough allow communicators to rapidly answer and respond to the very questions you ask.

  • jeff mustard

    Diane, you point out the right questions, naturally there are others,but for an “in the moment” review, thus far, in my opinion, Costa and Carnival are not doing that good of a job in the Crisis PR Communications arena – there are too many instances already of missteps; there is seemingly a vacuum of communications. Amazingly, since the ship “hit rock” on Friday night at 10:00 PM, there have only be three official press releases put out by Carnival Cruise Lines, via PR Newswire; their “communications” are weak and perfunctory at best. That’s why as of this morning, according to, Burson Marsteller was called in to help. As a PR practitioner naturally I have been following this crisis with a unique and interesting perspective, in fact, if you or your readers are interested or curious, I have already prepared a case study on the initial efforts of the crisis communications events as they are unfolding: headline: Capsized Costa Concordia, Will it Cripple Carnival Cruise Lines and Crush the Cruise Industry? The case study can be seen at:

    I look forward to continuing to monitor this situation, as much as an interested and concerned consumer as well as a member of the profession whose talents, unique skills and expertise will hopefully prevent this situation from sinking the cruise industry. While passenger sales and cruise bookings will dip, they will undoubtedly rebound, especially when, as Paul Smith noted, “more and better safety regulations and evacuation procedures” are employed; this is what will re-instill consumer confidence in the “safety of cruising.”

  • Lisa Attrill

    Diane: GREAT ARTICLE…I was thinking about this while watching the news myself!

    Jeff, Kari and Paul: Your responses are great. I have been monitoring it entirely from consumer perspective as a PR professional…If the company truly cared about their passengers (and from a mere ‘humanitarian’ position at the least), they would have a high-ranking official or CEO at the scene immediately talking with media and coordinating efforts for the stranded passengers/families of deceased, etc…Here we are what? almost two weeks after it happened? and still people are stuck on the island there!

    Having taken a ‘Carnival’ cruise in the past (married on the ship), I know that the minute all guests were onboard the safety drill started for everyone…I had to throw a life preserver over my wedding gown…from the news, it sounds like the ‘Contra’ line has had poor safety records and never ran the immediate drill…At a very MINIMUM, they should be at the site as a show of corporate social responsibility and concern for their patrons. Additionally, any special advertising of ‘Contra’ lines should be stopped at this time (it is in poor taste at the minimum)…they should ‘immediately’ explain corporate safety standards for ‘all’ their ships (which should be uniform).

    Just my take on it!
    Great article Diane!

    DISGUSTING PR response from an incredibly large Cruise Line Corporation.

  • dana peterson

    Interesting choice of words which open your penultimate paragraph, sounds like you’re surveying the gash in the ship’s hull. This will be the maritime trial of this century, the cruise industry’s Exxon Valdez, profound negligence of duty allegedly the cause in this one as well. I would focus on the families who lost loved ones, anything else seems shallow (there is my pun).

  • Teresa Chow

    The way for PR to secure a seat at the important table is to play a proactive role in communications and reputation risk assessment on a day to day basis and make sure that such assessments get on the radar screens of the executive management team. This will (1) help minimize potential crises and (2) establish PR’s role at the important table before a crisis happen.

  • jeff mustard

    Hello Fellow PR Professionals…well, getting down to the nitty gritty, one of the big questions is: How, or Should, Carnival CEO, Micky Arison, been involved as the face and voice of the crisis? I argue that, given the unique circumstances of the accident, and what has unfolded since it, and how the media has picked up on it, THAT, I believe, Arison is off the hook….and, I offer these observations and others in my recent 29-page case study that can be seen at my blog: honestly, I think, or at least hope, you might find my observations insightful on Arison’s LACK OF presence in addition to the myriad other issues I address in this Crisis Case Study Report… all the best, JM