The news of 600 passengers and crew members stricken with what appears to be norovirus is dominating the cruise news today. The story broke on Friday with the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) announcing that a little over 300 passenger and crew aboard the Explorer of the Seas were suffering from nausea and diarrhea.
The number rose to over 450 by the weekend. This morning the CDC raised the number of sick people to over 600.
This story came on the heels of another Royal Caribbean norovirus case last week. The Majesty of the Seas returned to Miami the other week with passengers and crew sickened by norovirus. The story was heavily reported as well.
The cruise norovirus stories seem to bring the disgusting Triumph "poop cruise" stories back to life. Hundreds of people floating around on a nasty ship jammed with people who wanted off the cruise and away from all of the vomit and diarrhea.
This morning around 4:00 AM I published my second article ("A Royal Mess") on the outbreak. I then went to the airport in Miami at 5:30 AM to meet a client. A CNN special about the Explorer's gastrointestinal illness (GI) outbreak was on a flat screen television positioned above one of the baggage carousels. Hundreds of people who had just flown into Miami watched the television as they waited for their bags. I watched them either shake their heads in disgust or laugh, perhaps nervously, as the CNN anchor interviewed a Royal Caribbean passenger who described the widespread illnesses on the sick ship.
I was familiar with this particular passenger's plight because we had exchanged tweets on Twitter about the cruise ship GI outbreak. Passengers tweeted over the weekend to anyone and everyone who would listen to stories about the ordeal. I could see that reporters from ABC, CBS and other major networks were sending messages to anyone they could find on Twitter looking for a live voice to tell the story. Reuters reported that one passenger wrote on Twitter: "I've been sick and quarantined... Everything I touch goes in a biohazard bag." A newspaper in the U.K., the Daily Mail, embedded tweets from some of the sick passengers, including a couple of tweets that I shared with one ill passenger.
The puke-fest-on-the-cruise-from-hell-story was growing and growing. It became clear that far more than 300 people were sick. The story would shortly become viral.
As usual, CNN beat their competitors in covering the story with a couple of video interviews of passengers on the stricken ship. One passenger was angry about the cruise line's disorganization. He said his last cruise with Royal Caribbean also involved widespread gastrointestinal illnesses. Another passenger complained that no one in the ship's room service would answer his calls for water, and no one told him when the quarantine was lifted.
Where were the public relation representatives of Royal Caribbean protecting the crew's and cruise line's reputations? Where were the PR experts for the cruise industry? Royal Caribbean finally sent out a formal statement to the press but there was no one on the cruise line's twitter feed interacting contemporaneously with the sick and suffering on the cruise ship.
The trade organization for the cruise line, Cruise Line International Association (CLIA), was asleep. Indeed, a check of the CLIA Twitter feed (@CruiseFacts) shows no tweets since December 18, 2013 - over a month! That's an eternity in the fast paced world of social media.
The CEO of CLIA, Christine Duffy, was no where to be seen. She needed to present the cruise industry's side of the story. She last tweeted on Thursday, the day before the outbreak from her handle @CLIACEO. Ironically, she last tweeted about a "great column" in Travel Weekly about the "new wave of attacks on the cruise industry" which featured a travel agent's criticism of me. (You can read my response here).
This shows a problem with the cruise lines' PR. The cruise industry PR is always late and in reaction to bad press. The cruise industry seems to be always complaining about CNN and the bad press, but it doesn't bother to interact with its aggrieved customers in real time. By the time it finally responds to bad news, there are other stories bringing even worse news. The travel writers will be pleased to write a puff piece whenever CLIA wants one, but the coverage is strictly after-the-fact. It lacks spontaneity and genuineness. There are no travel writers fast and nimble enough to react immediately when trouble comes.
When disaster strikes, whether it's a fire, a capsizing, or just the latest norovirus outbreak, the cruise lines don't know what to do. Their twitter and Facebook pages are silent. Their executives go to the Miami Heat games. The travel agents and travel publications run and hide.
A crisis management expert, Rich Klein, just wrote a blog about the predicament facing Royal Caribbean. With the headline "Honesty Remains Lonely Word," he writes that the cruise line has active Twitter and Facebook pages "but 24+ hours into their respective crises, only customers are reporting the obvious news while the companies offer little insight into what happened."
As sick passengers lamented their cruise-from-hell on Twitter and aggressive news reporters brought their stories to an international audience, Royal Caribbean and CLIA were enjoying their weekend. No one had their hands on the wheels of the PR machine. When genuine sympathy and a quick refund were in order, the cruise industry engaged in slow motion corporate talk. Royal Caribbean has still not even mentioned whether or how it intends to compensate its sick guests for the unpleasant, aborted cruise.
Photo Credit: Thomas Layer / AP Photo