Royal Caribbean Cruise PRPR News recently published an interesting article about how Royal Caribbean Cruises successfully handled its public relations image during the 2013 fire aboard the Grandeur of the Seas. Titled How Royal Caribbean Controls the Message During a Crisis, the article explains how the cruise line effectively controlled the narrative when the Grandeur caught on fire while cruising to Nassau.

PR Success: Immediately after the fire, Royal Caribbean quickly flew its president and a professional photographer to the port and tweeted photos of the cruise CEO interacting with guests "so that journalists would use those photos instead of a guest’s."

I mentioned this effective PR move in an article which I posted shortly after the fire titled Where Are Photo & Video Images of the Fire on the Grandeur of the Seas?  I commented on Royal Caribbean’s new and improved PR efforts, but pointed out that the cruise line released more photos of the cruise CEO having tea with passengers after the fire than of the damage to the ship. 

A video report by ABC News helped to explain why there were no videos or photographs because the cruise ship’s crew stopped passengers from taking images of the fire and chaos. Passenger Carrie royal Caribbean Cruise PRMcTigue told ABC News that "even when people put their cameras up to photograph the sunrise, they were told, ‘no photos.’"

PR Disasters: But Royal Caribbean has not always been able to control the images shown to the public when its cruise ships catch on fire. In July 2015, the Freedom of the Seas caught on fire. When we learned that the Freedom was on fire while heading to port in Falmouth, Jamaica, we asked a former client who lives near the port to video the fire. He videotaped the ship coming into port, billowing a huge amount of smoke. We immediately posted the video, on our Facebook page, which was viewed by over a million people within two days. We also posted the video on this blog with other images of the fire and the passengers mustering to prepare to abandon the fire-stricken ship.

So when Royal Caribbean tried to spin the story, with a misleading statement by its CEO that the fire was allegedly "small and quickly extinguished," the public could make their own assessment regarding the size and ferocity of the fire. All of the major networks (ABC, CBS and NBC) carried the video on their news programs and the international media included the video on their multi-media presentations.

The public was left with the impression that the cruise line was either completely out-of-touch with the danger posed to its guests or that it deliberately fabricated a falsehood to masquerade as the truth, which I suggested in the Royal Caribbean "Small Fire" Hoax.

Royal Caribbean also caused a public uproar after it sailed the Anthem of the Seas into a well publicized storm last year. Royal Caribbean’s PR people tried to say that the storm was "unforeseeable" but weather professionals didn’t buy it. They ripped the cruise line for routing the cruise ship directly into the storm. Read the Washington Post’s 4,000-passenger cruise ship inexplicably sails into Atlantic mega-storm. Weather experts accurately predicted the Atlantic seas out of New Jersey to be over 30 feet high with winds of hurricane strength, but the Anthem nonetheless recklessly sailed into theRoyal Caribbean Cruise PR storm, terrorizing thousands of passengers and burning out the clutches of its azipods in the process. The Anthem returned to port in New Jersey with only one propulsion unit operating.

Royal Caribbean initially denied any damage or injury to the ship or the passengers and then falsely claimed that the only damage to the ship was "cosmetic." Al Roker, the popular television weatherman on the Today Show, best summed up Royal Caribbean’s claim that the storm was not predicted: "Royal Caribbean’s claim that this was not predicted is bullfeathers."  USA TODAY chimed in with "Meteorologists: Royal Caribbean blew it on sailing into storm."

Practice Makes Perfect?  The director of the cruise line’s corporate communications, Cynthia Martinez, was quoted in the PR article as saying that that the company often "practices roundtable discussions of how to handle an issue, and sometimes they practice writing tweets and press releases for specific situations." So the next time that a Royal Caribbean ship catches on fire or sails into a storm, remember that what you may be seeing from this cruise line is what it wants you to believe rather than the reality of what actually occurred or – as Al Roker said – "bullfeathers."

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The captain of the Freedom of the Seas, Captain Ron Holmes, I am told by crew members is a good man. He is well liked and respected by the crew, from what the shipboard employees tell me.

After the fire, Captain Holmes, via a closed circuit television loop, explains to the passengers what just happened. He is obviously not reading from a script.

Captain Holmes says that the fire erupted from what he describes as the engine spaces. It spread, he says, from the bottom of the ship to the top, above the Viking Crown lounge via an exhaust stack through the ship. He says that the crew had to fight the fire in what he says are "multiple parts" of the ship. He says that due to the sparks and hot spots, it took around an hour to completely extinguish the fire.

He appears to be forthcoming and honest to me.       

His video is in stark contrast to the information which Royal Caribbean disclosed to the media and the misleading letter which the cruise line CEO Bayley sent to the crew members. The PR department and cruise executive said that the fire was allegedly "small" and contained in the ship’s mechanical spaces, which are obviously untrue.   

Royal Caribbean can’t seem to help itself. Its shore-side PR team was so quick to spin the story that it directly contradicted what the good captain was telling the passengers. Captain Holmes makes an earnest appearance, in my assessment. The cruise line’s PR department should have just uploaded the captain’s brief explanation to YouTube, rather than try and bamboozle the public. This is a cruise line which lies when the truth would do it better.  

 Video Credit: Michael Alden

Orcas SeaWorldA number of news sources report that SeaWorld’s Chief Financial Officer (CFO), James Heaney, will be joining Carnival Cruise Line as CFO next month. Mr. Heaney worked at SeaWorld since 2011.

As the movie Blackfish reveals, SeaWorld profits by forcing captive orcas, which swim a hundred miles a day in the wild, to entertain tourists. The orcas spend the majority of their lives virtually motionless in concrete tanks that are the human equivalent of a bathtub until their dorsal fins collapse. Have you read of the plight of Tilikum?

I responded to the news on Facebook with a single comment: "ugh." Here’s how readers of our Cruise Law News Facebook page reacted:

  • Now they can identify the marine mammals stuck on the bow of their ships.
  • Going from a company that is sinking to a company that runs ships is not a good combination.
  • Bad business … Carnival is the worse, low quality company I’ve ever know.

Before SeaWorld, Mr. Heaney worked at Disney Cruise Line for 17 years. 

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News accounts of violent crime against both tourists and residents in the Bahamas continue to be regularly published in the international and local press. 

David Jessop, the Managing Director of the Caribbean Council, has written insightful articles this year regarding the damage to the image of the Bahamas caused by articles in social media regarding such crime. He states that that the Bahamas, like other Caribbean islands, doesn’t have the social media skills necessary to promptly and effectively minimize damage to the country’s reputation when tourists become victims of violent criminal acts. I suggest reading his articles: Social Media and Managing Mitchell Nini Crime BahamasReputation published in January, and Reputational Damage published a few days ago in the Bahamas Tribune.

But how does the Bahamas manage its reputation when its newspapers are regularly filled with gruesome stories of violence virtually every day?

On April 30th the local newspapers in the Bahamas reported that a jury acquitted three Bahamian men in their 20’s of the "near-fatal stabbing" of a Canadian tourist, Mitchell Nini. Mr. Nini was stabbed 7 times in the chest, back and stomach when the thugs robbed a gold chain from Mr. Nini’s friend. 

I have written before that tourists injured during violent crimes in Nassau cannot find justice in the archaic Bahamian legal system, although the Bahamian tourist police seem effective in boarding cruise ships at the wharf and arresting U.S. citizens for small amounts of pot

I first learned of the acquittal of Mr. Nini’s attackers when his friends and family posted the news of the acquittal on Facebook and Twitter.  The articles posted by his mother on Twitter indicate that the three men confessed to the crime but later claimed that the police beat them into signing the confessions. 

The Canadian press published New Brunswick Man Warns of Traveling After Being Stabbed in Bahamas. The newspaper article shows a photo of Mr. Nini recovering from the vicious attack in the hospital while saying that tourists should stay clear of the island. He told the Global News "Whether you feel like you’re safe on the resort, as soon as you step off the resort you’re in a war zone.”

Mr. Nini’s reference to a "war" is appropriate.

Bahamian Prime Minister Perrie Christie told that Tribune newspaper last week that the government is "developing new crime fighting strategies to win the ‘war’ that they are fighting against the ‘hostile young men’ in the capital."

Meanwhile, Democratic National Alliance (DNA) leader Branville McCartney made the news stating that he does not feel safe given the ongoing scourge of crime in the Bahamas. He told the Tribune “I don’t feel safe in this country . . . We live in paradise, but we are paralysed by fear. We are in prison in our own homes because of the criminal element running amuck in this country.”

There is good reason for even the politicians to be afraid of crime in Nassau. In December, the Acting Prime Minister Philip Davis was robbed at gunpoint. Then in January a police officer assigned to guard a residence of the Prime Minister Christie was arrested on suspicion of stealing a television at the residence. The latter is a petty crime I know, but you have to shake your head when the bad guys are bold enough to stick up the Acting Prime Minister and the police are stealing from the Prime Minister.

What’s the response from the Bahamas to these and many other stories about trouble in paradise?  I have received many comments from the citizens of the Bahamas chastising me for suggesting that the out-of-control crime in Nassau also exists throughout the many islands which make up the country. But there are too many stories about crime against tourists outside of Nassau as well.

Last month Edgar George Dart, a 56-year-old British citizen who lived in Canada, was shot and killed and slowly died in front of his family after three masked intruders burst into his mother’s home in Freeport. And a 14 year-old U.S. girl was raped on one of the out islands just ten days ago.   

Violent crime is a part of life in Nassau. Dangerous young men with knives and guns are menacing the residents and tourists alike. Do the families on Carnival, Disney and Royal Caribbean cruise ships know that a war is raging in Nassau and even the top politicians in the Bahamas are afraid of crime and have been victimized themselves? How can a country even attempt to manage its reputation as a paradise for tourists when the local residents are paralyzed by fear? 

Watch the video of Mr. Nini below: 

Consider reading: Bahamas Responds to Making the List of Top 10 Most Dangerous Cruise Destinations: "The Bahamas Is Safe"

Bahamas Weekly: The Bahamas – Still Paralyzed by Fear: "Over the past two weeks, newspaper headlines have recounted horrific stories of violence, murder and mayhem which have gripped communities here in New Providence and on Grand Bahama Island; cementing crime and the fear of crime as one of the country’s most pressing national issues."

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Photo Credit: Global News

A Harris Poll released today reveals that the public has a lack of confidence in the reliability and safety of the cruise lines. Although the cruise industry was improving the public’s perception of cruising, the numerous norovirus outbreaks aboard cruise line ships this year seem to have "effectively stolen the wind from the industry’s collective sails." 

Just this week, the Princess Cruises’ Crown Princess experienced a norovirus outbreak. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has announced six prior gastrointestinal outbreaks this year. That’s 7 so far this year, compared to 9 all of last year. The public is questioning the cruise lines’ usual excuse that it is always the passengers’ fault for not washing their hands, as there is evidence Cruise Ship Norovirusthat many crew members work while ill in violation of the CDC protocols.

The Harris Poll reveals that the public’s perceptions of "quality," "trust" and "purchase intent" are still below the scores before the Triumph debacle last year. 

"We’ve all heard the saying that a rising tide lifts all boats," says Deana Percassi, Vice President and Public Relations Research Consultant with Nielsen, "but the inverse also holds true. In a field as crowded as the cruise industry, bad press for a small handful of brands – or even a single one – can have negative repercussions for major players across the board."

Americans continue to have more favorable attitudes toward air travel than toward cruises. Roughly six in ten think that air travel is much more reliable than taking cruises and a majority agree that air travel is much safer than taking cruises.

A majority of Americans also agree that they’re less likely to take a cruise now than they were a year ago. 

The cruise industry has also been rocked this year with a scandal that MSC Cruises has been dumping garbage bags at sea and have been exploiting its crew to the point that the police in Brazil had to raid a MSC cruise ship. Just this week, NCL decided to pull its cruise ships from Roatan following armed robbery of cruise passengers and the murder of a NCL crew member.

Last year, the cruise industry attacked the Harris Poll, accusing it of being "unscientific," "unreliable" and "flawed." The cruise lines, especially the trade group Cruise Line International Association ("CLIA"), always say this when there are unfavorable reports criticizing the cruise industry. It tries to discount its annual failed environmental cruise ship scores by the Friends of the Earth in this way too. Last week, CLIA said that it was "disappointed" by a study criticizing it for abusing crew members and the environment. It said the report was "unscientific" and "flawed."

Expect a similar statement from the spin masters at CLIA about the latest critical Harris Poll.  

This weekend saw the epic failure of Royal Caribbean’s corporate communications department after two of its cruise ships, the Adventure of the Seas and the Navigator of the Seas, encountered difficulties returning to their respective ports. 

The Adventure of the Seas encountered propulsion problems last week and, eventually, a total failure on Saturday night, after the cruise ship’s "fixipod" leaked oil and the ship lost propulsion. The ship limped back to San Juan on Sunday with great uncertainty whether it could possibly be repaired in time for it to sail. The ship is scheduled for a drydock at the end of the month, but it appears that Royal Caribbean decided to try and do a quick-fix of the damaged "fixipod" and squeeze in one more cruise to avoid having to refund their several thousands of passengers millions of dollars in refunds. Families Port of Galveston - Navigator of the Seas - Oil Spillwho had flown to San Juan to board the Adventure were not told of the propulsion issues and found themselves standing in a long line in the hot sun while the cruise line’s public relations department said nothing. As of this morning (Monday), the ship has still not sailed.

While the Adventure of the Seas saga was unfolding, the Navigator of the Seas was delayed returning to port by an oil spill caused by a collision between a ship and a barge. Families who had driven and flown into Houston to make the cruise where not advised of the oil spill or the delay embarking the ship while the Royal Caribbean department remained quite. Meanwhile the Carnival PR department was routinely posting updates on Twitter and Facebook about the problem which its ship, the Magic, faced with the oil spill. Carnival maintained a centralized "Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)" on its website.  It timely notified its guests that the cruise aboard the Carnival Magic would be delayed until Monday and that they should locate a hotel and get a good night’s sleep. 

By early Sunday afternoon, the Royal Caribbean passengers began openly complaining on Twitter and Facebook about the cruise line’s refusal to keep them up to date. A public relations nightmare was unfolding.

Numerous passengers and family members began bitterly complaining that Royal Caribbean was not notifying them via email, test messaging or telephone, and the cruise line was not utilizing its Twitter or Facebook feeds. Royal Caribbean has a public relations account of Twitter, called @RoyalCaribPR, San Juan Long Lines Adventure of the Seasbut it had remained silent for the psst 48 hours. People calling the cruise line were placed on hold, or the service representatives didn’t know what was going on. It was as if the entire customer relations department has outsourced to a distant village in India. 

The passengers in San Juan were congregating in long lines in the hot son without water or food (photo left, via @_DanielnPearson). There was reportedly a single restroom with long lines. People were suffering, particularly the elderly. One passenger sent me a photo of the long lines via Twitter. 

One passenger commented on Cruise Critic that Royal Caribbean "is refusing water and people are leaving in ambulances." Some passengers reportedly collapsed due to the heat and lack of water. And @It’sYourWorld tweeted a photo (photo below right) of a San Juan ambulance which arrived at the port to attend to one of the passenger trying to board the ship.  

Meanwhile, Royal Caribbean’s Facebook page said nothing about either the Adventure or the Navigator. While people began demanding an update on Twitter, Royal Caribbean posted a photograph of a beautiful tropical port of call (photo bottom left). At a time of crisis with customers begging for information, Royal Caribbean was clueless. It was trying to sell cruises with images of paradise when people in the sun needed water. 

As the afternoon dragged on into the evening and night, the passenger attempting to board these Royal Caribbean ships were kept in the dark. When Royal Caribbean finally began to tweet, its tweets were meaningless. One tweet it made over and over said: " We will provide more information . . . as information is available." 

Hundreds of passengers and the usual "Loyal-to-Royal" cruise fans began tweeting every few seconds. Of the hundreds of tweets, here are a few.

A cruise social media expert said: ‘Hey @CCLSupport any way you can help out @RoyalCaribbean on their updates? They don’t seem to be taking your lead :)"  He added another tweet: "@RoyalCaribbean’s last tweet was promo for Ibiza & @RoyalCaribPR’s last tweet was Friday. #FAIL"

A woman concerned for her elderly parents tweeted: "@RoyalCaribbean when can incoming guests check luggage? Senior parents (one disabled) have been up since 4am. They are exhausted."

Another woman from Texas tweeted: "My mom received no email or call updates. Found all the update info on Twitter. Pathetic!"

A man from Ohio tweeted: "@RoyalCaribbean why are your offices closed when you have 1000s of passengers waiting for information about boarding the Navigator of Seas?"

A cruise fan from Denver tweeted: "@RoyalCaribbean I understand the oil spill is out of your control but do you know how to use technology to communicate with your passengers?"

He added: "@RoyalCaribbean = confusion."

A member of Cruise Critic left this comment:

" . . . I am appalled by the lack of communication. Problems happen, (like busted ships and oil spills) but this is a problem that they knew they would have today given that it started Wednesday. There absolutely should have been a corporate plan in place to communicate with extra staff at port (3 days to fly staff from MIA to SJ is plenty of time) even if the only thing they would be able to communicate was that they don’t know anything yet. Despite what anyone thinks, in corporate America today if you are Ambulance Stressed and Exhausted Cruise Passengers - San Juannot ahead of the news cycle you are behind…tweets, FB etc are required, and certainly emails, phone calls, texts, to passengers sailing are required, not ‘optional.’

If as reported, no water or accommodations for elderly and special needs passengers were made while waiting to board; that’s another major failure given the huge amount of time the company had to prepare for what they knew would be a problem. A hotel ballroom and shuttle could have been arranged cheaply.

This is completely unacceptable and another huge black eye for the Royal and the cruise industry."

You can read the Cruise Critic comments here.

Throughout Sunday afternoon, we received emails and comments on our blog and Facebook page asking for basic information about these two Royal Caribbean cruises from passengers at the ports, travel agents and concerned family members at home. A cruise line has a major PR problem when guests and travel agents are ignored and have to seek information from a maritime lawyer rather than a cruise representative. We directed a number of people calling us to the Carnival updates about the Galveston situation and also sent the link to the webcam at the port of Galveston so that they could see when the Navigator finally arrived in port (photo top right).

It still remains uncertain whether the Adventure of the Seas will sail today. The Royal Caribbean PR Twitter feed @RoyalCaribPR remains silent. The Royal Caribbean main Twitter page @RoyalCaribbean has offered no updates for 14 hours. The page claims that it offers "inspiration and information from the official sponsor of WOW. Living the #cruiselife 24/7." Hardly.

The problem here is that cruise lines like Royal Caribbean try and squeeze their ships (and employees) to make every dime possible.  It could have decided to take its crippled Adventure of the Seas out of service a week early for dry-dock but instead loaded the new round of passengers aboard to avoid paying a hotel for the night or refunds for the missed cruise. 

This is not Royal Caribbean’s first PR blunder in San Juan. In August 2011 as a hurricane headed to the island, Royal Caribbean Serenade of the Seas sailed 6 hours early. But Royal Caribbean did not contact its guests via the emergency contact information about the new itinerary.  It didn’t provide the passengers, who arrived in San Juan to find that the ship had left, with hotel rooms. It abandoned its guests in the middle of a hurricane and didn’t bother to tell them.

Super cruise fan Carolyn Spencer Brown, editor of Cruise Critic, expressed outrage in her blog Bad Royal Caribbean Fantasy VacationsWeather Blunder: A Lesson in Cruise Crisis Control? "This takes my breath away. And it’s not about the fact that it didn’t offer to pay for hotels and flights . . . . It’s about dropping the ball in a risky situation. Clearly, I’m not the only one who is shocked at Royal Caribbean’s lack of responsibility to its customers. On Cruise Critic’s forums, its blog, and its Facebook page, travelers are incredulous." 

One of the continuing criticisms of the cruise industry is that it may be skilled at marketing fantasy images of idyllic cruise vacations but it is not prepared when disaster strikes one of its increasingly gigantic cruise ships. It’s clear that Royal Caribbean has not invested into the infrastructure of its crisis management department and developed policies and procedures to effectively communicate meaningful information in real time. If Royal Caribbean can’t handle a weekend when two cruise ships are delayed, one for an oil slick and another for a known propulsion issue, do you think that it can communicate effectively when a fire strands either the Oasis or the Allure on the high seas in rough weather or, God forbid, a huge ship sinks at sea? 

This week I listened to the multi-millionaire cruise executives praise the cruise industry at the "state of the cruise industry" at the Cruise Shipping Miami (CSM 2014) trade show.

As anticipated, Carnival’s CEO and former Monsanto chemical executive Arnold Donald said cruise ship accidents are "so rare . . .  cruising is safe."  Royal Caribbean’s long time executive Richard Fain claimed that cruise lines are "heavily regulated." The audience of travel agents and vendors tied to the cruise lines all politely clapped.  

The speeches contained little substance, no statistical support, and virtually all self-serving opinions. Carnival Cruise Ship FireI felt like I was at a motivational speaker convention sponsored by Amway.

The telling comments at the conference came from Norwegian Cruise Line’s CEO Kevin Sheehan. He said: "we are ruled by public opinion; unless we can keep our business running right will always be on defensive." The NCL boss added: "a period of operational excellence and no media incidents are needed."

Of course, this was the real insight into the state of the cruise industry – the cruise lines are on the defensive. The cruise lines seem nervous as they claim that their troubles are behind them. They are in the business of selling fantasy dream-like vacations to ports in the Caribbean which are becoming more and more violent.  They are praying that the media doesn’t bash them after a cruise ship catches on fire or a family is gunned down in the streets of Nassau. 

What’s the industry’s plan to pull itself out of the harsh media scrutiny? I didn’t hear one at CSM. The cruise lines, it seems to me, are just hanging in the balance hoping for the best. 

But history tells us that more trouble lies ahead. 

There have been over 90 fires on cruise ships since 1990, according to testimony at one of the many Congressional hearing on cruise ships disasters. Some fires were big, some were small although there is nothing really insignificant about any type of fire on the high seas.

Last year, the big story involved the Carnival Triumph, of course, which CNN covered non-stop. But the more significant fire involved the Royal Caribbean Grandeur of the Seas which burned for two hours. Most people seem to have already forgotten the fire on the Grandeur. Yes there will be cruise ship fires this year; hopefully minor ones only with no injuries. The public knows that accidents happen. The most important issue is whether the cruise lines respond promptly and responsibly (like Royal Caribbean did after the Grandeur fire) or delays unreasonably (like Carnival after the Triumph fire) and / or acts outrageously (like Carnival after the Concordia disaster)  

The cruise industry’s image problem is not just because of ship fires and Concordia-like disasters. The continuous stories about bad medical care, mistreatment of crew members, sexual assaults, children victimization, missing passengers, and so forth, coupled with a callous PR response, have more of an effect on the cruise industry’s image. Its like reputation death by a thousand cuts.

Last December, I published Top 10 Most Outrageous Cruise Ship Stories of 2013 & the "Worst Cruise Line in the World" Award.

In my assessment, the factors which most harmed the cruise lines’ reputation last year didn’t involve accidents at all. Rather, the most damage came from incidents showing the cruise lines’ egregious disregard of the law and a lack of care and compassion of their passengers and crew. The real damage comes from events like mishandling cases involving persons disappearing at sea, ignoring the man overboard laws, crew members arrested and sentenced to jail for child porn, fleecing crew members of their tips and retirement benefits, and a family cruise line aiding and abetting a child predator escape justice. 

One of the most embarrassing stories last year involved Silversea Cruises which was caught by the USPH hiding perishable food down in the crew quarters. We were contacted by crew members who complained about this, but Silversea ignored us when we contacted them. We sent the story to CNN. The special that CNN produced tarnished not only this luxury line but cast the entire industry in a bad light. The entire chain of events could have been avoided by Silversea just being honest and transparent.

The cruise lines suffer, in my opinion, from a combination of being arrogant and rattlebrained. The cruise industry engages in some really bad conduct on a continuous basis. It often makes things substantially worse when confronted by the media and bloggers like myself.

Last week, former crew members sent us video and photographs which seem to suggest that MSC MSC Cruises Cruise DumpingCruises has been dumping garbage, plastics and debris into the water in violation of international pollution law.

We asked MSC for an explanation. MSC ignored us just like Silversea Cruises did last year. MSC claims that un-named authorities in Brazil are investigating the allegations, but it refuses to identify the authorities or provide contact information. MSC is digging itself and the cruise industry into a deeper hole.

Cruise lines like MSC tout that they treat the maritime environment like this when in truth they may be treating the waters like this.  When the major media networks latch onto a story, the cruise industry is forced to make a statement, but the cruise lines often sound and appear evasive and unbelievable.

Until cruise lines act responsibly and treat all of their crew members, guests and the earth with respect and act with transparency toward the media, the cruise industry’s reputation will continue to suffer. 

This morning I wrote an article about Princess Cruises immediately blaming the sick passengers for what appears to be the latest norovirus outbreak aboard the Caribbean PrincessBlame Game: Princess Accuses Passengers of Starting Norovirus Outbreak on Caribbean Princess. Princess’s PR spokesperson Julie Benson accused the passengers of bringing the virus with them when they boarded the cruise ship.

She didn’t mention that the virus was wreaking havoc during the prior cruise.

Blaming the passengers is part of the PR strategy of Princess and the cruise industry.  

This afternoon I remembered reading a book by cruise expert Professor Ross Klein about this public Cruise Ship Squeezerelations defense strategy by Princess. The book is called "Cruise Ship Squeeze."  Professor Klein has been recognized as an expert regarding cruise line issues by both the House of Representatives and the Senate before whom he has testified several times.

I suggest reading Chapter 8 of Dr. Klein’s book. At pages 179 – 183, you can read about the cruise industry and Princess blaming the passengers. Eleven years ago during a 2003 cruise, passengers were stricken with a gastrointestinal illness. Princess accused their cruise passengers sick with norovirus of "bringing it with them." But the truth is that during the prior cruise, the cruise ship had experienced passengers sickened with the same sickness. 

No scientists arrived at this conclusion. And there was nothing remotely scientific about what Princess represented to the public. 

Ever since then Princess says the same thing over and over every time norovirus sickens the guests. 

Who needs epidemiologists when the cruise line PR team has already figured out what to say?

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 Explorer of the Seas Noroviruswas 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

Cruise Line StoriesA newspaper in Australia presents two sides of the cruise industry today. 

The main article is entitled: Death, Assaults, lawlessness … the Dark Side of the Cruise Industry. It’s a must read article for everyone interested in the historical view of the problems which continue to plague the cruise industry: missing passengers, excessive alcohol, drugs and sexual assault of minors.

At the other end of the spectrum is the cruise friendly piece: 11 Reasons Why a Cruise is a Safe Holiday. If you love cruising and think its the best thing since sliced bread, this article is for you. 

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