PR practitioners disagree on Royal Caribbean media strategy

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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 strategy.

The convoluted 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.

Royal Caribbean 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 story.

Crisis-management 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.

Several travel 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.

Another PR 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.

But two crisis-management experts said Royal Caribbeans recent efforts will help control the storys direction and increase the cruise lines credibility.

Jonathan 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 be.

The sudden flurry of press conferences and TV appearances by corporate executives is unusual for the cruise industry Bernstein said.

Bernstein, who 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.

Royal Caribbeans 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 said.

James 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 family.

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 media.

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.

Mea culpa -- 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 apology.

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.

However, Don 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.

The negative 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.

Stacks agreed 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 said.

Bernstein also characterized the cruise industrys PR track record as shaky.

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.

Lukaszewski, 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.

Lukaszewski 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 decision-making.

In some cases, even negative publicity can give companies a bizarre bump in business, he said.

The bottom line

 

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.

To contact reporter Kristin OMeara Hillmann, send e-mail to [email protected].

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