Dear Ms. Deeble.
Cruise and ferry executives have difficult jobs, I suspect. You have to effectively deal with labor disputes, increasing fuel costs, and price wars with your competitors in an increasing difficult economy. What a headache.
In addition to managing the financial pluses and minuses of your businesses, cruise executives like you also have to timely and effectively respond to public criticism when things go wrong on the high seas. But many maritime CEO’s, who are well educated and highly experienced in business and accounting matters, suffer from an inability to manage their company’s reputation when they face public scrutiny.
I know that you have faced tough economic times before while running your ferry business. At this time last year, you were finishing a major evaluation of P&O operations which addressed declining revenue and increasing costs facing your staff over 4,000 employees. P&O encountered stiff competition from rival ferry lines Danish-based DFDS Seaways and France’s MyFerryLink as well as the underwater train operators to France, in addition to generally tough economic times across Europe.
It must be hard to be responsible for over 4,000 employees who depend on P&O to support their families. After prior evaluations over the years, I know that you had to axe thousands of ferry employees to maintain profitability for the corporation. It’s doubly hard when a U.K. company like yours goes head-to-head with well run companies like DFDS Seaways (those Danish are hard working and efficient people, aren’t they?)
Your other competitor, France’s Groupe Eurotunnel, has not only the underwater train system but they enjoy lower priced ferry fares with their MyFerryLink brand. This upsets me. I’m a fan of Winston Churchill and the U.K. battle against Germany from 1939 to 1945 still inspires me. So P&O having to compete with the French, who would be part of Germany but for the U.K.’s sacrifice and courage, seems hardly fair. I am rooting for your U.K. ferry line to beat its overseas rivals. But I suppose that’s just my biased perspective.
Added to your difficult financial equation, I know that P&O received embarrassing treatment by the press in the U.K. last year after an internal company report concluded that exhausted cross-Channel P&O ferry workers suffering from sleep deprivation and stress presented a danger to their ships and passengers. The information from your internal report, based on a survey of 500 of your ferry workers measuring their hours of work, watch-keeping and fatigue, was leaked by a worker to a newspaper which published "Passengers at Risk Because of Tired Ferry Workers." Sometimes its hard to keep these type of things secret with all of the newspapers looking for a scoop.
I am also not insensitive to the recent bad news when the British Competition Appellate Tribunal granted relief earlier this month to Groupe Eurotunnel, which had been hit with an antitrust ruling stopping it from also operating its MyFerryLink ferries between Calais and Dover. You got a ruling knocking them out of your ports for a while. Good for you! But the ruling was overturned which brings stiffer competition to P&O.
But the stiffest challenge you face is growing protests that your company treated the parents of ferry passenger Richard Fearnside shabbily after he disappeared from the Pride of Kent earlier this year. I was disturbed to read that your ferry lacked any closed circuit television cameras (CCTV) on its exterior passenger decks. Money’s tight I know, but no CCTV? And I was even more disturbed and angered when Richard’s mother, Marianne Fearnside, raised this issue of why-no-CCTV cameras in this day and age in a letter to you. You kicked the letter downstairs to your PR fellow Chris Laming, who rudely rebuffed her and, incredibly, dismissed her proposal as "not practical."
You may recall that this dismissive attitude has plagued P&O in the past. Over 190 passengers and crew were killed in 1987 when the ferry line considered it was not practical to install CCTV cameras or alarms to determine whether the Herald of Free Enterprise bow doors were closed. The ferry capsized after a crew member responsible for closing the doors was exhausted and fell asleep (a problem which continues today). I know you were not with P&O / Townsend Thoresen back then, but as a well educated professional I am sure you are more familiar with this disaster than I. You understand that when you forget history, it repeats itself.
I wonder what you think of Marianne Fearnside. I really do. You’re a mother of two boys, now men. You must love your children deeply. You must have thought, at least once, what if one of my boys disappeared from one of my ferries at sea, at night, into the dark and cold water, alone. How would I feel? What would I do? You must have thought of these things, right?
I can tell you what I, as a father of two boys, think of Marianne. Unlike prior P&O victims understandably crippled by the loss of loved ones, Marianne Fearnside is a brave soul and a tough lady. She will not let her son’s voice fade away. It’s not easy, but she has taken her heart-felt campaign to improve safety on P&O ferries to the public. Initially dumbfounded and paralyzed, she has been vocal and full of action of late. She has found an audience and her cause has resonated with the public. Over 85,000 people have signed her petition to require P&O to install CCTV on its ferries. (This is a modest request considering that cruise ships based in the U.S. not only have hundreds of CCTV cameras but are required by U.S. law to install state-of-the-art automatic man overboard systems).
It’s only a matter of time before a major newspaper in the U.K. digs into this appalling story and P&O’s tattered image is further sullied. No one wants to see a home-town U.K. company take such a hit. You have hard working staff who deserve better than go down with a ship sinking in the eyes of the public. But even former P&O ferry workers have signed Marianne’s petition and proclaimed to the public that it is unreasonable and irresponsible for P&O to refuse to install CCTV. They are saying what many of your tired staff are probably thinking.
Let me quickly tell you a few lessons from cruise CEO’s here in Miami, the cruise capital of the world, who have failed miserably handling public relations disasters. There are lessons to be learned.
Cruise passenger George Smith disappeared in 2005 during his honeymoon cruise. When a passenger photographed a blood soaked awning on the ship, the story went viral. Royal Caribbean fought a war on the cable news for a year claiming that Mr. Smith was drunk and it could not have prevented his death. The cruise ship had no CCTV cameras or overboard systems. We represented Mr. Smith’s widow and appeared on FOX News, MSNBC, CNN and the major networks bickering with the cruise line’s PR representatives, safety managers and even the Chairman Richard Fain on Larry King Live. A Congressional hearing was convened about cruise passenger safety, followed by six other Congressional hearings in the House and Senate which continue today. It turned out that Mr. Smith didn’t just fall overboard as the cruise line said. He was likely thrown overboard by other Royal Caribbean passengers. The cruise lines were subsequently ordered not only to install CCTV cameras but automatic man overboard systems on all of their cruise ships, but not before the Miami-based cruise lines tarnished their image.
Another lesson comes from the debacle of Carnival CEO Micky Arison who, by all accounts, acted callously after the Carnival owned Costa Concordia capsized off the coast of Italy and killed 32 passengers and crew and terrorized thousands. He was roundly criticized for his apparent indifference to the disaster involving one of his over 100 cruise ships. But he didn’t seem to care. He continued to focus just on profits and losses (and his Miami Heat basketball team) and not the human suffering created by his irresponsible captain. As additional Carnival disasters and embarrassments (like the infamous Carnival poop cruise) unfolded, Arison stayed indifferent to the plight of his suffering cruise line guests. His once proud and popular cruise company became the laughing stock of late night comedians. When the Carnival earnings and stock flattened out, his board removed him as CEO. The new CEO has spent hundreds of million of dollars in safety improvements to the ships in the neglected fleet.
How will you respond to the PR nightmare facing your company? The P&O website is filled with thousands of well reasoned and succinctly written criticisms about the line’s perceived insensitivity and lack of ethics. Continuing to slough the matter off to your PR team will only make matters worse.
Now one other cruise CEO story to tell. Here’s a hint how to turn things around.
When the Royal Caribbean Grandeur of the Sea caught on fire earlier this year, the passengers faced a raging 2 hour fire after the automatic fire suppression system failed to operate. Royal Caribbean faced a major PR problem, especially coming on the heels of other well publicized Carnival mishaps. But unlike Carnival’s CEO Arison, Royal Caribbean’s CEO Adam Goldstein jumped on a jet to the Bahamas where he quickly met up with the burned ship. I’m not a fan of Mr. Goldstein, but this time he was a man of action with the right attitude. He was photographed inspecting the scene of the fire and discussing the fire while drinking iced tea with the passengers. He apologized profusely and promised improvements to his ships. The public quickly forgave the cruise line for the fire, and praised the cruise CEO for his quick action, transparency and concern for his guests.
The press is coming after you Ms. Deeble. The public outrage is growing. The nation is learning that other passengers and crew have disappeared off your ships. The time for mysteries is over. The Fearnside petition will shortly have over 100,000 signatures. Legislation requiring CCTV is inevitable.
How are you going to respond. Will you even respond?
You are the past President of the U.K. Chamber of Shipping. You’re highly respected and influential in your industry. Others will follow your lead.
Its time to get out from behind the desk. Put your financial papers aside for a moment. Drive the short distance over to Marianne’s house. You both live in Kent. Invite yourself in for a cup of tea. No lawyers, just you and Marianne. Make a New Year’s promise to her to install CCTV on your ferries. Future passengers and your own crew deserve it. And bring your photographers too. The public will love the image of you doing the right thing, and saving your company in the process.