Over the past week, those of you who read my blog but don't Twitter missed the remarkable phenomenon of bickering between a small group of travel bloggers invited by Princess Cruises to promote cruising under the hash tag #followmeatsea - and a larger group of green travelers who could not stomach the wow-cruising-is-amazing tone of the tweets.
"Bickering" may be an understatement. The debate was more like the food fight in one of my favorite movies, Animal House.
And boy did I enjoy it.
The first time I read that Princess Cruises was making its foray into social media with #followmeatsea, I knew that it was going to be a disaster.
In September, I praised the social media skills of Princess Cruises' sister company P & O Cruises for its use of YouTube by its CEO to provide information and diffuse criticism in "Cruise Lines and Social Media - P & O Cruises Hits A Home Run," but I blasted Princess Cruises for its lack of social web skills.
The problem with Princess was that it was oblivious to the discussion raging on Twitter when one of its cruise ships caught on fire. When Princess finally responded days later, it lost credibility by refusing to engage in a conversation on Twitter and by referring the public to its its self-serving and misleading press statements.
And here we are again.
The green travelers baited the here's-a-free-cruise-so-write-something-nice-about-us bloggers on Princess' Crown Princess with questions about the obvious unsustainability of cruising. The bloggers were blind-sided. While Princess's guests were being skewered, Princess ignored the environmental inquiries but chose to re-tweet only the most mundane isn't-this-wonderful tweets by its new friends with comments like "Beautiful!" or "Too funny!"
When Princess finally responded to the spot-on environmental criticisms, it referred to a statement on its website (circa 2008). But it refused to answer a single question about the use of bunker fuel or its ongoing history of discharge violations which continue to this day.
With good reason. Princess has the most deplorable environmental record of any of the 25 cruise lines sailing out of the U.S. over the last couple of months. Lets put the nicely written environmental policies on its slick web site aside for a moment. Take a look at Princess Cruises' actual practices:
In September, the Diamond Princess, Island Princess, Pacific Princess, Sapphire Princess and Sea Princess were cited for violating the Alaska Wastewater Quality Standards. Again, in October, the Diamond Princess, Island Princess, Pacific Princess, Sapphire Princess and Sea Princess - together with the Golden Princess - were cited for water discharge violations.
This month, the same culprits - the Diamond Princess, Island Princess, Sea Princess, Golden Princess and Diamond Princess were busted for pollution. The charges? Dumping illegal levels of copper, ammonia, zinc and fecal coliform bacteria into Alaska's pristine waters. It was therefore hard to read one of the bloggers' comments:
The Norwegian Environmental Officer who charmed the blogger no doubt looked very impressive and convincing in his white uniform. But nothing could be further from the truth. Princess Cruises had bamboozled this nice travel writer and set her up for ridicule.
Now, I will admit. I tweeted a few grenades into the #followmeatsea debate, asking about the start of a trial in L.A. where a Princess Cruises waiter allegedly sexually assaulted a passenger aboard the Coral Princess, as well as Princess Cruises' nasty practice of dumping insufficiently treated chemicals and feces into Alaska's clean waters. Princess Cruises ignored these pointed questions, although one brave blogger promised to ask the Environmental Officer about the violations and tweet his answer.
The problem here is that Princess doesn't realize that it cannot control the debate by inviting a few nice people onto their cruise ship with the hope that they write nice things about the cruise. Todd Lucier wrote an interesting blog on Princess' social media debacle entitled "Seven Deadly Sins of Social Media: Lessons from #followmeatsea." Deadly Sin #1, according to Mr. Lucier, is "thinking you can control social media."
Unlike the cult-of-personality cruise community sites like CruiseCritic and CruiseMates where membership requires group-think cheerleading and true cruise critics are banished, the Twitter forum is pure free speech. Fortunately, there are many free thinkers out there with a healthy dose of cynicism. Princess Cruises' #followmeatsea happy talk was predestined to turn into a discussion of real issues, which the cruise line was ill-prepared to handle.
The spirited back and forth on Twitter was invigorating. But I am still waiting for a response from Princess Cruises' Environmental Officer about Princess' last 17 wastewater violations.
Coral Princess Barbara Bagnell (via National Post)
#followmeatsea tweet Todd Lucier