The Costa Concordia in January disaster set off a seemingly endless avalanche of stories on cable news this year about ship fires, sinkings and other cruise disasters, as well as a steady stream of articles and videos about sexual assaults during cruises, drunken brawling passengers, and the disappearance of women at sea.
I’m just one of probably 100 maritime attorneys in the United States who handle cases against cruise lines. But just this year alone I have appeared on ABC’s 20/20, Dateline, PBS, Canada’s CTV and CNN, as well being quoted in newspapers and magazines like the Wall Street Journal, Slate, The Daily, London’s Financial Times, Newsweek Magazine, Newsweek’s The Daily Beast blog, Fund Web, Reuters, Consumer Affairs, Australia’s Herald Sun, Houston Chronicle, Seattle Times, Sun Sentinel, Chicago Tribune, Tampa Bay Business Journal, Business Insider, and Greenwich Magazine.
Even Perez Hilton quoted one of our stories about a cruise crime for goodness sakes.
The cruise lines’ PR have been working overtime to respond to hundreds of stories from the U.S. and international media about cruise ship mishaps and dangers.
The cruise industry’s trade organization (CLIA) has been pumping out press release after press release, touting that cruise crime is "rare" and trying to explain that the Concordia debacle was an isolated incident caused by one bad-apple captain.
But stories about ship fires, engine failures and children being sexually assaulted on cruises keep coming and coming.
A lot of pressure has fallen on CLIA to salvage the cruise industry’s reputation. That’s a daunting task.
There’s the pesky image of the Concordia lying on its side in Italian waters as a daily reminder that 32 people are dead and yet the cruise line did not even have a procedure in place to require life boat drills before sailing. Plus the cruise industry has the visual disadvantage of having to compete with the dramatic images on television of the panicked passengers trying to save their own lives, as well as teenage rape victims explaining the horror of being raped during a vacation cruise.
Slick corporate gobbledygook after-the-fact PR statements about the "safety of our guests is the cruise lines’ highest priority" are not going to cut it.
The victims’ stories are too compelling. Belated PR statements from an industry with a major credibility problem won’t work.
The cruise industry has picked the CEO of CLIA, Christine Duffy, to combat the bad press. CLIA just launched a new blog and opened a twitter account for Ms. Duffy to fight the bad news.
One of MS. Duffy’s first blogs was "Sailing with Respect" where CLIA touted itself as a steward of the marine environment. It included a beautiful stock photo of colorful tropical fish and pristine water. But today a story broke about what is believed to be cruise ship garbage and feces drifting ashore on a quaint beach in Massachusetts. Local officials believe a HAL cruise ship emptied its bilges after sailing from Boston last month. The story was covered in the local press, a television station in Boston and USA Today’s travel section.
Faced with these images, its hard for anyone to believe the cruise industry statement that it is "extremely committed to protecting the waters and surrounding environments where we operate to preserve their natural beauty, minimize impact on native species and protect the waters upon which we sail." Happy talk won’t persuade the public faced with plastic bottles, used hygiene products and condoms washing ashore covered in a gooey brown mass of human excrement.
Also breaking today was a story from a local station in Houston about a woman from Texas raped during a cruise out of Galveston. CLIA responded with its usual PR statement that crime is "rare," which seems cold and callous juxtaposed against a video of a woman sobbing that no one helped her after she was raped on the last night of the cruise.
I don’t see how Ms. Duffy can keep up with the continuous bad news.
An image comes to mind of an "I Love Lucy" episode of Lucy working at a chocolate factory. Pieces of chocolate come out of the kitchen on a conveyor belt. It’s Lucy’s (and Ethel’s) job to tie the chocolate up in an attractive wrapping (not unlike Ms. Duffy’s job to wrap the bad news with a pretty bow).
But the conveyor belt picks up speed. Soon Lucy is overwhelmed. She tires to eat or hide the chocolate but makes a mess of herself and the chocolate in the process. Finally, she exclaims "I think we are fighting a losing game."