Can Carnival Weather The PR Storm?
None of the listed antonyms for triumphant -- defeated, failing, losing, unsuccessful –- seem to adequately convey what headlines and news anchors everywhere were calling a “Carnival public relations fiasco” late last week as its Triumph was towed to port. Every scatological joke, and picture imaginable got posted in social media along with passengers’ harrowing tales in the mainstream outlets.
Carnival CEO Gerry Cahill tried his PR 101 best to stay ahead of the situation -- publicly apologizing and boarding the ship himself as passengers debarked -- but it was “too little, too late” for passengers like Norma Reyes, CNN’s Lateef Mungin and Steve Almasy report.
“The hallways were toxic,” Reyes says. “Full of urine. It was horrible. If that ship caught on fire, and they had not contained it where would we be? Floating in the ocean or dead.”
Some landlubbers lambasted Cahill’s efforts: @Perry Downing, in a comment to a Gawker story about the breakdown of a bus transporting Carnival survivors, wrote: “It's cracked me up the way Carnival kept upping what the passengers would receive for their trouble. First, it was reimbursement for their cruise or a voucher for a new cruise. Then it was reimbursement AND the voucher. Then it was that plus reimbursement for their additional expenditures (booze, shore excursions) while on the Cruise from Hell. Then they added $500 in cash. I wonder what it's up to now?”
But most passengers praised the efforts of the crew. Despite “vow[ing] at a rate of almost 100% [that] they would never book a Carnival cruise again … they were universal in their praise of the 1,086 members of the ship’s crew,” James Turnage reports in The Guardian Express.
Seasoned industry observers, meanwhile, seem to think that Carnival will weather the media storm just fine. As the graphic “Nightmare Cruise Docks” played on the screen ahead of pictures of bathrobed passengers “kissing God’s green earth,” PhoCusWright’s senior director of research, Douglas Quinby, reminds WSJ Live’s “News Hub” listeners that “events like this do happen from time to time in the cruise industry. They are fairly rare.”
Although “they have an extraordinary impact in the short term in terms of the media coverage,” Quinby continues, “for the industry overall the impact is relatively muted, and we certainly wouldn’t adjust our forecast for industry growth for 2013 as a result of this incident.”
Quinby allows that there will be an impact on “first-time cruisers” but points out that there is a core group of cruisers who “love the brands, love the experience and know these events are rare.”
“It’s a lot of bad publicity but they have basically a good product,” Andrew Coggins Jr., a professor of management at Pace University’s Lubin School of Business in New York and a retired Navy commander, tells the Los Angeles Times’ Hugo Martin and Molly Hennessy-Fiske. Travel agents they talk to say that business proceeds apace for “the Walmart of the cruise industry.”
“They are not calling us in droves, telling us they want to cancel their cruises,” says one. “People realize that it’s Carnival, and things like that happen,” says another.
Carnival has, indeed, survived two other “PR fiascos” in recent years -- the tragic Costa Concordia grounding last year that resulted in 32 fatalities, and an engine fire on the Carnival Splendor in 2010.
Scott Hunger, owner of Travel Leaders in Schofield, Wisc., tells Wausau, Wis., WSAW’s Ryan Burk that although sales may slow for a while, “people have short memories.”
How short? “It is probably over and done within a week, and things will probably go back to normal.”
Beyond the mechanical glitches, the industry -- increasingly priced for the middle class -- faces a potentially more subversive problem. Critics say it’s getting too big for its bridges.
“With the industry’s popularity have come concerns over safety, pollution and the impact of thousands of tourists,” Robbie Brown, Kim Severson, Barry Meier and Marc Santora report in the New York Times. “Communities including Key West, Fla.; Sitka, Alaska; and Charleston, S.C., are weighing the economic gains against the cultural and environmental impact of an industry with ships that can accommodate more than 6,000 people.”
Another storm in the industry’s path, as PhoCusWright’s Quinby points out, is the stalled economy in North America and Europe. But the Cruise Lines International Association, with its bow pointed eastward, is optimistic about the coming year.
"We are very bullish on China and Asia as a whole," Jim Berra, chief marketing officer of Carnival and CLIA's marketing chair, recently told Reuter’s Patricia Reaney.
In short, we don’t expect to be trotting out that “rearranging the deck chairs” metaphor about cruise ships any time soon.