The public relations (PR) section aims at creating helpful relationships between organizations and stakeholders, and thus it ensures the good flow of communication. Organizations benefit from the PR department by creating brand awareness, advising the management, and disseminating valuable information to the public (Bernstein 2011). In the event of a crisis, the need for communication becomes essential for curbing or reducing detrimental impacts on both the organization and stakeholders. This aspect is vital for the management of emergency whereby information about the crisis developments is relayed to the relevant parties to prevent escalation (Jaques 2007). In the 21st Century, various platforms such as social media have enhanced crisis communication, hence speedy response. The occurrence of a crisis can happen in any industry, and thus organizations are required to have crisis management capacities (Ulmer, Sellnow & Seeger 2010). In this case, a crisis that faced the travel industry will be the focus of this paper. This paper is a critical analysis of the crisis communication surrounding the marooning of the Carnival Triumph Cruise ship.
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Carnival Cruise Lines Background
Ted Arison founded the Carnival Cruise Lines in 1972 as an entrepreneurial venture in the travel industry. The company conducted its initial public offer in 1987 where it generated over $400 million, thus enabling it to merge with other cruise companies to form the well-known Carnival Cruise Lines. Currently, the company owns 24 ships and it manages over 100 subsidiary vessels thereby employing almost 91,000 workers (Levin, Jones & Slade, 2012). Carnival Cruise Lines has emerged to be a significant player in the travel industry accounting for 50% of the market share. In 2013, the company cruised 10 million passengers using its various ships plying different routes around the globe (Mayfield 2013).
The company’s vision is to operate in an environment where respect for the surrounding, safety, hospitality, and each other is upheld together with the essence of teamwork. Carnival Cruise Lines also envisions to provide memorable vacations of its clients through a committed shipboard team that observes the core values of the company (Garin 2006). In this light, this paper will evaluate the company’s visions in relation to times of crisis coupled with how its PR department handles crisis communication.
The Carnival Triumph Crisis
On February 10, 2013, news spread that the Carnival Triumph Cruise Ship developed technical problems before catching fire. The incident occurred in the Mexican Gulf for four days with over 4,200 people on board. The incident affected the ship’s state as air conditioning stopped functioning and bathrooms overflowed causing raw sewage to seep into the walls and carpets. As tension heightened, passengers posted photos of the pathetic conditions on social media, which results in the trending “#cruisefromhell” hashtag in both Facebook and Twitter (Rossignol 2014).
The crisis received enormous attention as media houses proceeded to air images showing passengers lying on the ship’s deck waving “help”. Media houses appeared to be seeking ratings on the crisis with repeated stories about the situation, thus creating more tension (Shankman 2013). The news about the occurrence was not reliable since the PR from Carnival Cruise Lines did not communicate properly on the issue. In this regard, the public was swayed by different reports emerging from various sources, thus creating tension among the families of the stranded families and other stakeholders.
Carnival Cruise Lines engaged its Facebook page and Twitter handles in crisis communication whereby updates on the proceedings were posted at intervals. The social media platforms were used to reply to queries from the public on the developments. However, it ignored negative comments and focused on issues such as refunds and reimbursements. Reports indicated that Carnival sent other ships to facilitate the provision of the necessary equipment required for the management of the crisis.
Two days later, the company’s CEO, Cahill, addressed the incident publicly. He apologized to the affected individuals in a press conference. This was the first time the company engaged its management in active crisis communication, thus implying the lack of urgency in addressing the crisis. During this period, the company’s executive, Arison, was not active in managing the situation with reports indicating that he was attending a sports event during the period of the crisis (Rossignol 2014). This aspect further portrayed the lack of seriousness, compassion, and urgency emanating from the company’s top management as affected families and stakeholders continued to get worried about the potentially detrimental incident.
After four days, the vessel managed to arrive at its destination. Families of the stranded passengers cheered as the ship arrived before Cahill made another apology to those affected by the situation. Cahill accepted that the management had failed the guests in providing a memorable vacation experience.
Analysis of the Triumph Crisis Communication
The contribution of the Carnival’s PR in addressing the Triumph crisis is subject to analysis to evaluate its management of the situation. In this light, the pre-crisis, during the crisis, and post-crisis management of the acts will be the central focus of this analysis whereby the developments and actions at each stage will be scrutinized to uncover the strengths and weaknesses. The various theories of crisis intervention such as the Situational Crisis Communication Theory (SCCT) and the Attribution Theory (AT) will be employed. Therefore, the management of the crisis at different levels is subject to critical analysis in a bid to identify the impacts and threats that it had to Carnival and the stakeholders.
The Pre-Crisis Phase
Minimizing the risks with the potential for causing a crisis in an organization is essential for protection from hazardous events. This aspect entails planning and prevention strategies for the likely unfortunate occurrences. According to Fink (2013), organizations are expected to have bi-annual updates of their crisis management plans due to the changing factors such as organizational structures, technology, environmental factors, and public policies. A team to manage a crisis should be put in place and engage in crisis mitigation exercises annually (Coombs 2013). At this phase, a draft of crisis messages should be put in place to facilitate crisis communication in the event of an unfortunate occurrence. Therefore, the preliminary stages of crisis management provide a basis for an analysis of the Carnival’s preventive and preparedness strategies before the Triumph crisis.
On the Carnival’s crisis management plan, it seems that the company did not have the required strategic plans to handle such a situation. A crisis management plan guides how an organization responds to a crisis in terms of resource allocation and communication (Coombs 2011). The Carnival’s PR department did not react promptly after the Gulf of Mexico incident. This aspect elicited questions on whether the company had communication strategies geared towards informing the concerned stakeholders about the developments in the Triumph ship crisis. Planning for a crisis saves time and enhances faster response to such situations. Contrary to speedy response, the organization’s crisis management team delayed its communication on the issue and only responded after numerous questions were raised on different social media pages.
Initial planning in the pre-crisis phase entails the allocation of responsibilities to various team members especially laying down the roles of a spokesperson. Therefore, crisis communication is planned for in the event of a risky situation thereby enhancing preparedness and preventing escalation (Ulmer, Sellnow & Seeger 2010). There seemed to be unpreparedness in the Carnival’s crisis communication since there was no representative from the company to address the affected families and concerned stakeholders immediately after the incident. A manifestation of lack of planning for communication was portrayed when the organization conducted a press conference 48 hours after the incident whereby Cahill, a top manager, apologized to the passengers and their families.
The message communicated during a crisis has a significant impact on the stakeholders as it highlights the way forward. The pre-crisis phase is characterized by pre-drafting messages that could be communicated during a crisis event. In doing so, crisis communication speed is enhanced and the affected get a clear reflection of what is happening and the intended action towards alleviating the negative implications of the crisis. During the press conference facilitated by Cahill, the messages delivered concentrated mostly on the apologies to the stranded passengers and their families. The Carnival’s messages did not emphasize on the actions that they intend to take in a bid to contain the situation.
The pre-crisis communication analysis can further be evaluated using the Attribution Theory (AT). The theory provides that people make judgments from information supplied to create causal explanations for events (Feam-Banks 2010). Therefore, the causal judgments are founded on the information collected after the occurrence of an event. Relating this aspect to the Triumph crisis communication, the public judged the Carnival’s management as not concerned with the welfare of the passengers for the failure to communicate about their well-being during the event. The public took the issue to social media platforms with the hashtag #cruisefromhell indicating how unsatisfied they were with the company’s communication strategies. In this light, stakeholders seemed to judge the preparedness and preventive measures as weak, thus affecting the Carnival’s response to the situation.
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Crisis Response Analysis
In a crisis, the spokesperson is required to address the what, where, who, when, and why (Ulmer 2001). This aspect entails communicating with the current situation, the location, the responsible parties, the time of occurrence, and the underlying causes. Accordingly, an organization hit by a crisis should be in a position to convey messages that show their efforts on containing the situation and what it intends to do to prevent similar scenarios in the future (Palese & Crane 2002). In doing so, the reputation of the company is protected. The stakeholders need to know how the company is responding to the crisis in a bid to cooperate towards alleviating the situation.
The Triumph crisis evoked mixed public reactions due to how the management handled the situation. After the crisis had hit, the company used social media to address the Triumph catastrophe.
The use of social media during the Triumph crisis
Social media can be used as an effective platform for crisis communication as well as the source of a crisis to an organization. Carnival Cruise Lines has an enormous following over the Internet on social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter with over 2 million likes and 72,000 followers respectively (Shankman 2013). During the Triumph Crisis, the company failed to use social media appropriately in addressing the developments of the situation. On the contrary, the company used social media to post information about a press conference and a session for airing apologies chaired by the CEO, Gerry Cahill. Despite making over 20 posts on Facebook concerning the Triumph crisis, the company failed to inform the affected families about the circumstances and status of their loved ones. The press and other stakeholders were also not provided with adequate information on the developments, hence giving a room for the spread of rumors that created more tension.
Despite the frequent Facebook posts, the company’s reputation did not benefit fully from the crisis communication since sensitive issues were not addressed. Posts on social media about promotions and compensation were not necessary at that phase of the crisis since the stranded passengers were still at sea under brutal conditions. The conditions attached to the promotions were also not favorable indicating the profit-making motive that the company had instead of providing long-term strategies that would prevent such events. Viewing the economic aspect of the situation in terms of refunds was a mistake since it was not sure that the ship would make it to the Mexican shore safely. This aspect conjured criticism, since it valued the passengers’ money at the expense of their lives, thus showing no concern for their safety. Compensating the passengers was also perceived as a redemption strategy that intended to demonstrate that the company was handling the situation.
The conveyance of unnecessary messages via Twitter also portrayed weaknesses in handling crisis communication. A tweet by Carnival affirming that the ships’ bathrobes are complimentary was perceived as a mere act of showing off (Shankman 2013). Instead of addressing how the company was dealing with the dysfunctional lavatories, the messages delivered focused on unnecessary aspects of crisis management.
The press, families, and the affected stakeholders were not updated via the different social media pages; instead, the platform was used as their CEO’s channel for conveying apologetic messages. Farazmand (2014) argues that crisis messages are usually highly meaningful if the focus is directed to the families who are worried about their relatives’ situation. For the same reason, media agencies created their stories regarding the crisis since they were no provided with first-hand information from the Carnival’s PR team.
Stakeholders such as investors were left out in the crisis communication throughout the Triumph crisis. Since Carnival Cruise Lines has been trading publicly, its finances were somehow influenced by the public’s perception of its operations and performance. A commendable public relations program in the event of a catastrophe is essential for adding value to the company’s stock since it builds public confidence in the company (Coombs & Holladay 2009). This assertion holds because the public evaluates how the company manages an adverse situation and reflects on the management of finances too. The SCCT theory is audience-oriented and it could be used to analyze the implications of a crisis to the investors (Coombs & Holladay 2009). Potential investors had negative perceptions about the viability of investing in such a company that seemed to be ineffective in handling the clients’ safety. However, Arison’s stepping down as the CEO before being replaced by Donald acted in the Carnival’s favor. Donald’s role as the new CEO was kick-started by appearing on CBS news to explain the strategic plans that the company had put in place to uphold the passengers’ safety and prevent crises. Consequently, this move facilitated the redemption of the investors’ confidence in the company.
The Triumph ship arrival to its destination did not mean an end to the management of the crisis. The public had to be informed of the actions that the company intends to take in order to restore normalcy. Contrary to this aspect, the social media pages stopped posting updates concerning the crisis management after the ship managed to get to the Mexican shores. Instead of utilizing the opportunity to restore its image after the crisis since the public would continue visiting its social media pages, the company remained silent for a while. In this case, Carnival was required to carry out post-crisis management strategies, involve the relevant shareholders in restoring normal operations, and enhance the safety of passengers in the future.
In a bid to improve response to crises in the future, Carnival carried out managerial changes. Arnold Donald was appointed as new CEO to replace Arison whose commitment towards the passengers’ safety was questionable (Shankman 2013). Immediately after assuming office, Donald made his plans for ensuring the passengers’ safety in the future by appearing on CBS news. Upon evaluating this move, it portrays that managerial changes had taken a decisive path towards enhancing post-crisis communication. The Carnival’s strategies towards improving safety entailed an investment of $600 million to cater for the refurbishment of its ships. This aspect involved fostering power backup systems and preventing the likelihood of both engine rooms catching fire at the same time.
The changes in management at Carnival can be attributed to the active post-crisis management strategies. Donald played an important role in facilitating the post-crisis communication promptly that seemed to win the public’s confidence in the company. Additionally, his strategic plans meant that the company was already engaging in pre-crisis management initiatives. For this reason, the company’s reputation was slowly built after being tarnished due to communication gaps during the Triumph crisis.
Crises are inevitable and preparedness for such events is essential for the reduction of potential threats and damage. Crisis communication plays a pivotal role in alleviating crises since stakeholders would be in a position to make enlightened decisions concerning the event. In this case, the Carnival’s handling of the Triumph ship crisis in the Mexican Gulf was not efficient, and thus it resulted in criticism from different parties, hence tarnishing its reputation. For instance, its social media pages did not address the real issues facing the stranded passengers. For this reason, the passengers’ safety was not prioritized, thus manifesting loopholes in the Carnival’s PR and crisis management departments. Analyzing the crisis based on theories such as the Attribution Theory (AT) and the Situational Crisis Communication Theory (SCCT) proves that poor crisis communication creates public perceptions. The Carnival’s failure to address the Triumph issue promptly posed threats to its reputation since parties like the media and onlookers created their versions of the story. Therefore, poor management, unclear messages, and lack of response to the public’s queries on the developments of the Triumph crisis proved to be the Carnival’s missteps. However, with strategic crisis management plans, the redemption of the company’s reputation is possible.
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