Five Crisis Communication Tips for Businesses: Lessons from Carnival Triumph

03.20.2013 | Melissa Cafiero

By now, you’ve likely heard about the Carnival Triumph debacle: In early February, the Carnival Triumph cruise ship was on day three of a four-day outing when a fire broke out in the engine room and the ship lost power, leaving passengers and crew members stranded on the stalled ship in the Gulf of Mexico. Tug boats began towing the ship toward Mobile, Ala., after it was decided that towing it to Progreso, Mexico, would not be the best option, given the ship drifted northward in currents and many passengers did not have passports.

Through social media and communications with family members and friends who contacted news outlets, it became clear that living conditions on the ship were less than favorable (and potentially dangerous). From human waste to sleeping on mattresses dragged into common areas on the vessel, along with limited food supply and waning patience, the situation – and the public’s perception – deteriorated quickly.

Regardless of your company’s industry, there are a few lessons to be learned in handling a crisis:

  1. Prepare in advance. You can’t control whether a crisis situation will happen or not, so it’s best to be prepared for the worst case scenario. Identify all (or most) of the potential issues your company could experience and develop an overarching reactive plan (or multiple plans) to address them. These plans should include some standard components:
    • Determine roles and responsibilities, such as identifying spokesperson(s), assigning materials development, naming approvers for statements and other public-facing materials, etc.
    • Set the communication channels, like Twitter, Facebook, direct mail, the company blog, etc. This will differ based on your audience, so make sure it’s an outlet they’re familiar with and in a format they prefer.
    • Identify who is in charge. This person will assign tasks, determine priorities and next steps, and manage the issue. This should be someone who has authority to make decisions quickly.
    • Outline general reactive statements (example below) and include a FAQ to handle potential media questions and inquiries.
  2. Communication is key. In a crisis situation, a company has a number of audiences with which to communicate: affected customers, media, company stakeholders, the general public and more, depending on the situation, company and industry. Communication should be tailored to each audience as much as possible and given in a timely manner. What constitutes timely? In the current 24/7 news cycle, when word travels globally within minutes thanks to social media, timely means as soon as you know about the issue. You don’t need to know all the details, but an immediate response, even if it’s as simple as, “We heard about X problem and we are working to investigate. We’ll provide more details and guidance as we learn more. We apologize for this inconvenience,” can work wonders. Carnival’s CEO Gerry Cahill didn’t apologize until two days after the issue, and passengers reported getting news slowly from staff while onboard the ship.
  3. Remain truthful. Prevent a situation going from bad to worse by being honest, even if the information isn’t positive. From investigative reporters to savvy customers, and even employees who like to share information, the truth will eventually come to light. And if your company isn’t holding the microphone when it does, the situation is guaranteed to get worse. What’s worse than a company having a crisis? A company having a crisis where facts trickle out slowly and diverge from statements being given to media. Not only will the company have a negative perception to change, it will also have to rebuild customer trust. Additionally, the accuracy of any future statements, details or information provided will be questioned.
  4. Investigate. It’s always a best practice to investigate any kind of crisis that arises. Whether it’s a security breach, a downed website or a stalled cruise ship, it’s imperative that the company investigate what caused the issue, how it was resolved and how it will be prevented in the future. Following an investigation, some companies like to publish a post mortem that highlights these details and reiterates the company’s commitment to quality. Amazon Web Services does a great job publishing post mortems following service outages.
  5. Be human. Lastly, while you’re concerned about your company’s image, gathering details on the issue, communicating with internal stakeholders and other factors, don’t forget to be human. Show empathy, apologize, acknowledge the magnitude of the situation and reaffirm your commitment to customers. When a crisis happens, you’re suddenly the goldfish swimming around while everyone else watches everything you do. Don’t say anything you don’t mean – the public can identify an insincere statement in a flash – but don’t be afraid to show remorse.

What other best practices would you offer to companies dealing with a crisis? How have you successfully managed them in the past?



Tags: , , , , ,

Filed under: Crisis Communications, EXPERTISE, INDUSTRY, PR trends

One Comment

  1. Would like to say good job for writing this I really liked reading it.

Leave a Reply

Communication Strategies that Move Product. Sell Services. Grow Brands.

We are experts at harnessing PR to achieve business results. We are quick-study strategists who know how to get the job done. Learn more »


We are big believers in the power of strategic public relations to meet business goals. You could even say we wrote the book on it. Check it out »