The cruise industry has an image problem. Royal Caribbean is the main reason.
This year began with Royal Caribbean’s business-as-usual approach to ferrying passengers back and forth to its "private destination" in Labadee (actually sovereign Haitian land leased from Baby Doc Duvalier). While Haitians tried to dig out of the rubble and bury their dead following the devastating earthquake, Royal Caribbean passengers zip lined, jet skied, or sat drinking margaritas on the cruise line’s private beach.
Royal Caribbean received widespread condemnation from advertising and PR experts nationwide.
Newsweek magazine joined the ranks of those questioning Royal Caribbean’s corporate morality in an article "Setting Sail on a Haitian Pleasure Cruise – the Moral and Economic Dilemmas of Royal Caribbean’s Labadee Port." On the same day, the widely respected non-profit organization, Center for Responsible Travel, issued a press release chastising Royal Caribbean for not doing enough. The non-profit group characterized the cruise line’s move as "unsound" and a "colossal public relations faux pas."
This sentiment echoes the criticism by PR experts in Advertising Age’s "Royal Caribbean Blasted for Continuing Stops in Haiti" where the consensus is that this was a "massive debacle" which may have long term damage to the Royal Caribbean "brand."
The Feministing Blog admonished Royal Caribbean for taking advantage of the incredibly poor country of Haiti and urged its readers to consider going on a cruise line other than Royal Caribbean "or tell them that these practices are unacceptable."
Royal Caribbean’s President Adam Goldstein told National Public Radio that the decision to continue to sail to Labadee was a "no-brainer," a flippant and indifferent remark reflecting, perhaps, the core values of the "Nation of Why Not?"
But this nothing new for Royal Caribbean. It’s just the latest debacle in a series of public relations blunders dating back over a decade.
In mid 1990’s, the cruise industry’s arrogance had reached a zenith. The industry thought itself to be above the law. Cruise ships routinely dumped everything overboard – from plastic garbage bags to crime scene evidence. The cruise industry treated the sea like a garbage dump. It treated crime victims like criminals.
In the late 1990’s, the U.S. Coast Guard caught Royal Caribbean engaged in the widespread dumping of oil and chemicals. The Justice Department responded by fining the cruise line $1,000,000. In response, the cruise line went to its PR people who dreamed up a campaign of "Save the Waves." The PR experts posed the cruise line as a leader in protecting the environment. Royal Caribbean posted this mantra on signs all over its cruise ships. All of the waiters, bar tenders, and cabin attendants had to wear "Save the Waves" badges touting the cruise line’s commitment to protecting the seas on which it sailed.
The problem, however, is that the cruise line didn’t change its ways. Royal Caribbean continued to illegally discharge oil, waste and fecal matter everywhere from the Caribbean to the pristine waters of Alaska.
The Feds caught Royal Caribbean dumping again. And the U.S. government fined the cruise line again – this time $8,000,000 – and placed it on probation. Did Royal Caribbean learn its lesson? No, the illegal discharges increased. While the crew members wore their "save the waves" buttons above deck while serving passengers cocktails, Royal Caribbean engineers below the decks fabricated secret by-pass values to dump everything from raw sewage to chemicals used in the photography labs directly into the ocean. Royal Caribbean cruise ship even dumped oil and sewage into the waters right outside of the executives’ windows overlooking Biscayne Bay.
The U.S. Attorney General, Janet Reno, a Miami resident herself and an environmentalist as well, was not amused. The discrepancy between how the cruise held itself out to the public as a green company versus its actual criminal conduct was not lost on the Attorney General. By the time she was through, Royal Caribbean pled guilty to multiple felonies, received another whopping fine of $18,000,000, and agreed to a five year probation.
While Royal Caribbean was forced to clean up its act on the environmental front, it found itself embroiled in multiple lawsuits after women and children were sexually assaulted during cruises. Its own guests accused it of hiding evidence and tampering with crimes scenes on the cruise ships.
Royal Caribbean went back to its PR consultants for a quick fix of the problem. The result was a much publicized "zero tolerance" slogan where the cruise line promised to report all crimes to the FBI and to preserve evidence to be used against the perpetrators, who too often were crew members. But like the "save the waves" marketing gimmick, the "zero tolerance" motto was just another PR scheme.
All too often, by the time the FBI arrived on the scene following a shipboard rape, all evidence was gone. The cruise industry was often accused of sanitizing the cabins and steam cleaning the carpets. The destruction of evidence on cruise ships seemed so thorough that it appeared like a scene out of Pulp Fiction where hit men Vincent (John Travolta) and Jules (Samuel L. Jackson) call upon Mr. Wolf (Harvey Keitel) to oversee the meticulous clean up of their bloody car.
In 2005, I was retained to represent the newlywed bride of George Smith IV, who disappeared from Royal Caribbean’s Brilliance of the Seas under mysterious circumstances. At this time, Royal Caribbean was an admitted corporate felon which had just come of probation for its environmental crimes and lies to the U.S. Coast Guard.
The cruise line quickly labeled Mr. Smith’s death to be an "accident." But there was blood all over the awning below his cabin. And when photographs of what many thought was a crime scene began appearing on cable news every night, the American public had doubts about what Royal Caribbean was saying. For the next year, the cruise line fought a highly public PR battle in the press, pandering to their base of travel agents and cruise fans while attacking the grieving families.
In the process, the cruise line’s history of shipboard crimes came into focus. The U.S. Congress convened five hearings from 2005 through 2009 into the issue of whether cruise ships were safe. The debate focused almost exclusively on Royal Caribbean’s history of sexual assaults, shipboard crimes and unexplained disappearances of passengers.
While Royal Caribbean decided to fight a very public battle in the press, behind the scenes other cruise lines cringed as the cruise industry’s image sank further and further. When things could not get any worse, the President of Royal Caribbean’s main competitor, Carnival, entered the public relations nightmare. President Dickinson publicly proclaimed that the death of young George Smith was a "non-event." Not only did Carnival’s President decide to state this publicly, he chose to do so at the cruise industry’s annual "Sea Trade" convention in Miami Beach in front of hundreds of reporters – while sitting next to Royal Caribbean’s President Adam Goldstein.
Rather than distancing himself from such disrespectful comments, Mr. Goldstein sat smiling and was later photographed openly chuckling with Mr. Dickinson in front of the cruise delegates. About what? Who knows. But the damage was done. The cruise industry’s indifference and arrogance came through loud and clear.
Over the past five years, if something outrageous happened on a cruise ship, chances are the ship carried a Royal Caribbean flag. Child molestation, sexual assault, norovirus, employee theft, passenger and crew member over-boards – you name it, Royal Caribbean has it covered. As I pointed out in Royal Caribbean Press Statements And Other Gobbledygook, the mantra of other Miami cruise lines is "only at Royal Caribbean could this happen."
In the next couple of weeks, we will report on some of the recent PR blunders by the cruise industry. And chances are they will involve our friends at Royal Caribbean.
Haiti – earthquake AP (via Mail OnLine)
Royal Caribbean cruise ship The Consumerist Don’t miss reading "Royal Caribbean Caught Infiltrating Review Sites With Viral Marketing Team."
Awning CBS News