In normal times, the story might be front-page news. At the moment, it’s a juicy item for communicators. The “Bloomberg BusinessWeek” headline and subheads are striking: “Socially Distance This,” the headline reads, the subheads say: “Carnival Executives Knew They Had a Virus Problem, But Kept the Party Going” and “More than 1,500 people on the company’s cruise ships have been diagnosed with Covid-19, and dozens have died.” A large, overhead picture shows four decks of a Carnival ship, packed with passengers eating, swimming, drinking and generally enjoying the moment.
The gist of the April 16 article, by Austin Carr and Chris Palmeri, is that the Carnival line had coronavirus outbreaks on its ships in February and March, but failed to act quickly to protect passengers and crew. Moreover, it continued departures through mid-March.
It’s a theme that sounds eerily familiar to one heard almost daily on land. Critics say government leaders also initially downplayed the virus, giving the deadly killer a head start.
The employers and governments insist they've protected their employees.
While now is not the time to hold employers and governments accountable for their actions during the early days of the virus, that moment will come. For brands, those that were transparent and acted quickly to protect customers and staff will come out ahead once the pandemic subsides, says Jan Jones, a professor of hospitality at New Haven University.
Slipping a Note
The opening lines of the Carnival Cruise story tell of a note slipped under passengers’ doors on the Grand Princess March 4. The note said the CDC had opened an investigation of COVID-19 cases in CA. The Bloomberg article alleges life on the ship remained normal until “around lunchtime” the next day. That’s when the captain announced “all 2,422 passengers needed to go to their cabins to shelter in place,” the article says.
At a time when most Americans outside Seattle were doing little to mitigate the virus, the Grand Princess and its passengers became a big news story. The ship was in limbo off the west coast of the US. Almost half (21) of the first 46 tests on passengers and crew were positive.
“I don’t need to have the numbers [of confirmed cases in the US] double because of one ship,” President Trump said March 6, mulling whether or not to allow the Grand Princess to dock near San Francisco. The president was misinformed. The US had about 282 confirmed cases at that point.
The Bloomberg story mentions other Carnival ships that had virus cases earlier. In short, it holds the cruise line to what seems to be a high standard. The CDC didn't issue a no-sail order for cruise ships until March 14. Carnival ships stopped embarking at that time.
“At least seven more of the company’s ships at sea" were "virus hot spots, resulting in more than 1,500 positive infections and at least 39 fatalities,” the article says. In addition, it quotes a CDC official who specializes in cruise line health issues. The official blasts Carnival for continuing to have ships depart well into March. Such voyages, the official says in the article, put "a huge strain" on the country.
What makes the Bloomberg article interesting for communicators is Carnival’s response to the allegations. President/CEO Arnold Donald insists the company acted properly and promptly. There were no apologies. “This is a generational global event—it’s unprecedented,” Bloomberg quotes him as saying. “Nothing’s perfect, OK?"
Donald clearly is looking to the above-mentioned day of reckoning. You have to believe his defense against the inevitable lawsuits will rest heavily on comparing how Carnival responded in comparison with how the US and other governments reacted. An investigation, he predicted in the article, will show the cruise line did a good job overall. "They will say, ‘Wow, these things Carnival did great. These things, 20/20 hindsight, they could’ve done better.’ ”
In addition, Donald says the company's response must be seen in context. He notes, correctly, that the White House wasn't doing a great deal to fight the virus in early March either. Indeed, the president hadn't said the virus was "bad" until March 16.
A better response from Donald would have recounted the actions his company took on behalf of passengers and crew. In addition, it would have been empathetic, especially about passengers and crew who have died.
"This is not a time for arrogance but instead a time for transparency," Professor Jones tell us. "Cruise lines should clearly articulate new safety policies and choose empathy and compassion when dealing with and responding customers."
Later in the Bloomberg article, Donald and his team claim they’re making “every effort to protect and treat their remaining passengers.” Carnival has 3,200 passengers and crew still at sea.
Monday Morning QB
Asked why Carnival didn’t act sooner to initiate ship-wide quarantines on the Grand Princess, the president of Carnival’s Princess Cruises division, Jan Swartz, is quoted as saying, “It’s very easy and Monday morning, you know, 20/20 hindsight, to say what’s the view of what should have been occurring…We did our best to take care of people.”
Not only that, Carnival tells Bloomberg it refunded all tickets, offered free Wifi during the onboard quarantine and helped with travel arrangements when the Grand Princess eventually docked in Oakland.
In addition, the article quotes Swartz as predicting the experience will make customers more likely to take another cruise. “There are many loyal Princess guests who have told us that this has actually cemented Princess as their No. 1 vacation choice,” she said.
Indeed, the article mentions that the company has bookings for later this year and 2021. Half the customers who sought cancellations between March 2 and March 15, the article says, opted to take credit instead of a refund. "Almost all the passengers interviewed for this story say they’d cruise with the company again," the writers admit.
It's not too much of a surprise: Carnival offered many of them free vouchers for future trips, Bloomberg says.
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