NEW YORK -- As
Royal Caribbean last week leaped head-first into an unusual all-out
public relations war with the family of a passenger who went
missing under mysterious circumstances, crisis management and PR
experts disagreed strongly about the wisdom of the cruise lines
tale of George Smith IVs disappearance from a cruise in the
Mediterranean has attracted intense -- and increasingly negative --
media scrutiny in the last three weeks.
has responded in kind with an uncharacteristically aggressive
approach, publicly disputing claims made by Smiths wife, family and
lawyers, and even admonishing reporters covering the
experts, both professionals and academics, offered widely divergent
points of view about the lines new tactics, while executives of
other cruise lines were characteristically less than forthcoming on
the subject of missing passengers.
As negative publicity about
the case grew -- often in the form of clearly biased reporting and
commentary on the part of TV news media -- Royal Caribbean
countered by offering the ships captain; the lines chairman and
CEO, Richard Fain; and other company officials for TV interviews.
In addition, the company mounted increasingly contentious press
conferences in recent days to counter the familys criticisms of
Royal Caribbeans handling of the incident.
industry PR practitioners told Travel Weekly they were surprised by
Royal Caribbeans aggressive new approach. Yet some
crisis-management experts familiar with the case said that the
cruise lines tactics were well-advised and would likely mitigate
damage to its credibility with investors and consumers.
Two critics of
the campaign -- both PR executives speaking on condition that they
not be identified -- said some of the more questionable tactics
included a barrage of official statements disputing accounts
offered by Smiths parents and his wife, Jennifer Hagel Smith, the
distribution of an extensive chronology of the events surrounding
Smiths disappearance and a teleconference called to counter the top
10 myths of the case.
One PR executive
said the chronology document was incredible and added, In 20 years
of PR, Ive never seen anything like it.
executive described the chronology as binging and purging, and both
executives speculated that the cruise lines sudden high-profile
tactics might do more harm than good.
crisis-management experts said Royal Caribbeans recent efforts will
help control the storys direction and increase the cruise lines
Bernstein, a crisis-management expert with 23 years in the field,
said the cruise line appears to have done everything right from
what Ive seen so far. Theyre being as transparent as they can
The sudden flurry
of press conferences and TV appearances by corporate executives is
unusual for the cruise industry Bernstein said.
heads his own crisis-management firm, said Royal Caribbean is
hamstrung by its obligation not to reveal facts that pertain to an
ongoing investigation by the FBI.
Its a real thing,
not an excuse, Bernstein said. They are not the ones officially
responsible for releasing details. Those are supposed to come from
the investigating authority. In fact, he speculated, the cruise
line would probably like to say more than they can.
Its very natural
for victims to feel extreme anger and to strike out at anybody who
might be responsible, Bernstein said, and their message is one
thats difficult to counter, even with facts.
decision to put top executives on camera demonstrates to
shareholders and the public that they are not hiding behind a
corporate veil and in fact are cooperative and responsive, he
Lukaszewski, who heads The Lukaszewski Group in White Plains, N.Y.,
acknowledged that the adversarial nature of the media row is extra
difficult to counter, given the press natural affinity for the
emotionally charged story of the victim and the victims
Great TV is made
with emotion, he said, and blow-viators work so hard [to do this]
on the cable channels, where audiences are finite and gravitate
toward emotionally charged stories.
The pain is real,
he said of the Smith family. These people are victims. But to say
they are [the lines] adversaries is correct.
He said Royal
Caribbeans effort to publicize their set of facts on their Web
site, in press conferences and by directly countering claims made
by the Smith family and Jennifer Hagel Smith has been effective
because the cruise line has, to some extent, circumvented the
By using their
Web site as a sort of clearinghouse for updated information, he
said, Royal Caribbean officials begin to establish a base of
information about the story from their perspective and to manage
the record of the story over time.
-- with care
The cruise line
has expressed its sorrow for Smiths family and wife both in its
written communication and in media interviews.
One of the
greatest challenges is to be empathetic with someone who has set
out to do you in, Lukaszewski said, adding that Royal Caribbean
would do well to continue to move toward a stance of an
My advice is
always to say as much as you can as soon as you can to shorten the
life of the adventure in general, because it becomes less
interesting, Lukaszewski said.
Stacks, director of the Advertising/Public Relations program at the
University of Miami School of Communications, said that the
companys effort to get the facts out now, while on the right track,
came way too late.
implications of the story, he said, extend well beyond Royal
Caribbeans immediate sphere. It will be a black eye for the cruise
industry if this sort of thing continues to bubble and perk. Theyve
got one huge negative out there right now.
that the ongoing FBI investigation did limit Royal Caribbeans
ability to fully disclose events of the Smith case but asserted:
Its going to be hard to mitigate public opinion because its hard to
take back whats out there.
In general, he
said, the cruise lines have a track record of learning hard lessons
from PR missteps in high-profile cases.
With the Norwalk
virus, the first time, ... they claimed they didnt have it. But the
[second] time, they were open and honest; they said they were
working on it, and the story went away, he said.
You need to get
the truth out ... it goes to the definition of PR, he
characterized the cruise industrys PR track record as
Cruise lines have
been very bad at crisis management, he said. All the sickness
epidemics have been handled in a very bad way. They have made
claims that were blatantly untrue, which is always a risky thing to
do. They have not shown a lot of empathy for victims.
Stacks said that
in the future, Royal Caribbean and cruise lines in general would do
well to emulate the approach taken by airlines in the event of a
crash or other catastrophic events by using a crisis-management
plan that clearly delineates their actions, identifies information
that can and cannot be released for ethical or legal reasons and
prescribes next steps.
however, said when it comes to getting the message out, There is no
too late. And the lack of any identifiable impact on Royal
Caribbeans business, he added, bears that out.
predicted that the Smith case would likely have very little impact
on Royal Caribbeans business in the immediate future. Its sad to
say, but it would fit the pattern; were all engaged in our own
pursuits, and people are aware of it, but its not influencing their
In some cases,
even negative publicity can give companies a bizarre bump in
business, he said.
For now, Royal
Caribbeans business appears to be unaffected by the media
firestorm. Its stock price remained stable, and the cruise line had
seen no downturn in bookings, according to Lynn Martenstein, the
lines vice president of corporate communications.
A major cruise
retailer, who requested anonymity, said her agency had seen nothing
-- absolutely no indication of a falloff in business.
And, despite the
intense media scrutiny, Terry Dale, president and CEO of the Cruise
Lines International Association, the story was but one of several
topics discussed at a recent cruise industry gathering.
Theres a cruise
industry coalition of ICCL, CLIA and directors of public relations
for member lines who meet to discuss issues, as an industry, he
said. We did talk about it. There were other topics discussed, too
-- avian flu, for instance.
reporter Kristin OMeara Hillmann, send e-mail to [email protected].