Carnival Cruise Lines' recent handling of a Caribbean cruise gone awry says a lot about the way one of the world's largest cruise lines handles crisis PR. A cruise that began Nov. 15 was rocked by a 24-hour power outage a day later, prompting 200 of nearly 2,000 passengers pleading to get off the Sensation and go home. According to news reports, passengers were nearly ready to declare mutiny on the Sensation due to the mechanical problems. The ship finally docked Nov. 18 in San Juan. If held to a litmus test for the proper way to handle a crisis, Carnival missed the mark in two major areas: dealing with their customers by, literally, leaving them in the dark; and by not having PR people on hand to deal with press queries. While the company issued a short statement referring to the "blackout," many journalists, based on published accounts, complained about the lack of accessibility to the PR department. Passengers also complained that the Carnival staff and corporate officials were unresponsive. The mishap attracted enough attention to land stories in the Miami Herald, Miami Business Journal and USA Today. "The air conditioning was not working, there were problems with the stabilizer, the elevators were malfunctioning, and it got to the point where staff wasn't coming clean on what was taking place, and that they tried to avoid the issue and coming clean," passenger Peter Seligman, a supervisor with ETI Financial Corp. in Lake Worth, Fla., told PR NEWS. He said about 1,000 of the ship's passengers gathered, during the cruise, in a dining room to discuss suing Carnival. The captain and the cruise director refused to address the group in person, Seligman added, and only made announcements via an intercom system. When the ship finally arrived in San Juan and unhappy passengers demanded to be flown home, they were escorted through the bowels of the ship and forced to leave through the cargo hold, Seligman recalled. "Staff was rude, unresponsive and uncooperative, and then Carnival left us stranded in San Juan Airport for seven-and-a-half hours," he said. Passengers had not filed a lawsuit when PR NEWS went to press. Carnival's Defense One of the reasons Carnival PR practitioners were unable to get back to the media quickly on the Sensation situation is because the entire PR staff was on board the Destiny vessel promoting the world's largest cruise ship to the media. "It made it really challenging because we were on another vessel and the only people left in the main office were support staff," said Carnival spokesperson Jennifer De Lacruz. She said the PR staff scrambled to their cellular phones to speak with as many journalists as possible. But De Lacruz said Carnival Cruise Lines' new customer relations tool - a money-back guarantee - was the cause for the mass exodus and the media interest. "We have had weather and mechanical problems before; it is an inherent risk when traveling by sea," said De Lacruz. "However, all of these passengers were able to take advantage of our guarantee and leave." De Lacruz said last summer the cruise line issued a guarantee allowing ship guests who were not having a good time to get off at the first foreign port (international maritime laws make it illegal for passengers to disembark in a U.S. port if the ship leaves from a U.S. port) as well as receive a pro-rated refund for the unused portion of their cruise. They also were offered reimbursement for a plane ticket back to the ship's originating port. But Seligman said the guarantee was not enough. Under such circumstances he said passengers should have been compensated for their time. As with most companies, Carnival's PR department is in charge of media relations only and does not have jurisdiction over customer or guest relations. "We have no role in compensation or goodwill gestures," said De Lacruz. "We are free to make suggestions just like any other department." Only 250 of nearly 260,000 passengers have opted for the refund, which went into effect Aug. 8 and ended for the season Nov. 22. Situations which have led to refund offers have mostly been weather-related, she said. Carnival has decided to continue its guarantee program next season, beginning Jan. 2 for cruises through Dec. 18, with the exception of Alaska, Hawaii and the Panama Canal. Part of the method behind Carnival's guarantee is to attract first-time cruise vacationers in a flat market. Many people have never gone on cruises because they feel they'll be bored or get seasick. "The guarantee," she said, "provides those guests with a comfort level - an "out" if you will - just like they usually have in a land vacation." The cruise line credits the program with boosting bookings 16 percent during the 3 1/2-month trial period. (Carnival, 305/599-2600)

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