Consumer cruise blogs have been abuzz about Royal Champions, a group of cruisers who routinely post online comments about Royal Caribbean. It turns out the group was organized by the cruise line.
In an article on Tripso.com, travel columnist Anita Dunham-Potter said Royal Caribbean noticed that Royal Champions members frequently posted on Internet cruise bulletin boards like CruiseCritic.com.
So the line enlisted them "to spread the cruise line’s gospel, so to speak," Dunham-Potter wrote, and rewarded them with invitations to pre-inaugural sailings and events hosted by Royal Caribbean executives.
The report has prompted web-wide questioning about whether one can trust reviews and opinions on message boards.
Last May, Dunham-Potter said she began to question whether Royal Caribbean was not only monitoring these boards but trying to keep negative reviews off of them.
She wrote about a Royal Caribbean passenger who was banned by the cruise line from its ships because of incessant complaints the passenger posted on Cruise Critic.
"A huge red flag went up when I wrote this story," Dunham-Potter said in an email.
Royal Caribbean defended Royal Champions and said the program had been misconstrued as a "plan to buy favorable reviews of our ships and present them as the work of genuine consumers," said Harrison Liu, manager of brand communications for Royal Caribbean International.
Liu said that the line did not "wine and dine [Royal Champions] and buy their commentary with free cruises, perks or payments," but he admitted that the line did not communicate well what the program was about or who was part of it.
"We reached out to a few people who participated frequently in Internet discussions of cruising," Liu said. "We invited these people to learn more about our company, our ships and our programs. These invitations provided them with access to ship previews or special events, but they were not, as has been implied, free cruise vacations."
He said Royal Caribbean treated "these amateur writers as we would the press, providing them access to information.
"We never told them what to write or edited their postings, but we did certainly monitor their resulting writings," Liu said. "This is how we proceed with traditional media, as well."
The difference, of course, is that people know the press as the press. Journalists have bylines and write for news publications.
Royal Champions writers were not identified when they posted on Cruise Critic. It did not sit well with people that there were posters on Internet forums who were treated differently by Royal Caribbean, but they were not identified as such.
If the group had been transparent about its relationship with Royal Caribbean, much of the furor over Royal Champions would not exist.