Vice President Dick Cheneys hunting accident last week provided a perfect illustration of what two things occur when the publics appetite for information about a sensational event is left unsated. First, in a vacuum of information, people will try to fill in the blanks as best they can. And second, theyll wonder why complete information was not released immediately.

As a rule, this vacuum has far worse consequences than releasing information as quickly and completely as possible, however bad the news.

As I write this, there is no reason to believe the accident was anything but an accident. But unanswered questions about the course of events prior to the shooting and immediately afterward left people wondering if there were extenuating circumstances.

Was the hunting party drinking? Did they delay reporting the incident until they could agree on what spin the story would take? Why wouldnt the vice president simply say what happened? Was he trying to hide something?

In a similar vein, it would be an exaggeration to say that the cruise industry in general and Royal Caribbean in particular could have avoided the headaches they are experiencing if they had had a better PR strategy after the disappearance of George Smith. But its no exaggeration to say the intensity of public interest in the case could have been less had there been a more swift and complete accounting of known facts.

Rick Sasso, president of MSC Cruises USA, is an industry veteran, having served as president of Celebrity Cruises from 1995 to 2001. He said progress has been made in the way the industry responds to crises, but that its not yet where it should be.

The need to speak out quickly, and I think the industrys been very bad at this, is important, Sasso told me. You cant let it sit. And it has to be someone credible and responsible, not the PR person. The guy at the top needs to be quick, and when he does speak, not just say, We did what we were supposed to do, to call the FBI, but to say, Here are our procedures, and as you can see, our procedures go beyond whats necessary.

In other words, take a page from the most successful PR recovery effort ever undertaken: Johnson & Johnsons saving of the Tylenol brand. In the fall of 1982, seven people died after poison was put in bottles already on shelves in Chicago stores. No one knew at what point in the supply chain the contents of the bottles had been altered. The brand was in danger of being associated with death.

Had a company spokesperson said, The FBI is looking into it, and we really cant comment on the investigation, its possible that the Tylenol brand would not exist today. Instead, Johnson & Johnson responded with an openness to questioning and the introduction of tamper-proof seals -- not just one seal, but multiple seals.

In reality, [the industry] isnt trying to hide anything, Sasso said. Theres been a change in the way the industry responds to problems in the past five years. Theres been an effort to be a good citizen. In the past, when there was a problem, we used to debate: Do we have to respond? Will it go away? We dont ask that now, and the change is sincere.

But the response has to be quick, by the face of the company, be valid and have meat.  We have to keep in mind that 85% of consumers have never cruised. Its not like Coke, where everyone knows the product. When they listen to the media, what conclusions can they draw? Most viewers have never been on a cruise ship. But if we put our story out right, theyll say, Yes, we never thought of that.

Sasso feels the cruise story is a good one when it comes to safety and crime. A cruise ships not the right environment to commit a crime. Theres no place to run and hide, and you cant get away from people. There are a lot of cameras, and every crew member is a watchdog. By square footage, its the safest place on the planet.

Ultimately, safety isnt the only issue. Theres also the question of transparency. Cheneys accident isnt likely to spur congressional investigations into hunting safety, but his reputation has taken a beating.

Thankfully, Royal Caribbeans brand is not in the same danger that Tylenols was. And Congressional hearings may bring to light how safe cruising is. But it remains to be seen whether, for the public and Congress, the discussion remains on safety, or becomes poisoned by perceptions about the way the industry responds to questions.

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For more on this topic, see Travel Weeklys cover story, Under Siege, in the Feb. 21 issue.


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