Cruise lines have escaped most of 2019 without a major media blowup, but a stumble on a recent cruise from England has highlighted the growing exposure they face as a result of ubiquitous social media.
The 14-day Norwegian Spirit cruise had stops planned in Amsterdam, Norway, Iceland, Ireland and Great Britain, but bad weather caused the line to omit three of eight port calls, including both ports in Iceland, a core part of the itinerary.
A plan to substitute a call at Greenock in Scotland also collapsed, leaving some passengers fuming. Videos and photos posted from the ship soon went viral, showing a mob of vocal passengers in the ship's atrium chanting, "We want a refund," and engaging in heated arguments with the ship's officers.
Stories that initially cropped up in British tabloids were soon matched by outlets such as NBC News and the BBC.
Norwegian declined to offer refunds but did extend a 25% future cruise credit, an offer derided by some passengers as being too little, too late.
Such problems have been exacerbated by the faster, more reliable internet connections cruise lines have installed in recent years and by encouraging passengers to post social media accounts of their cruise.
Normally, a cruise line benefits from shared social media posts of good times on ships and in ports. But when there is a fire, a rogue wave, a fight or some other negative event, those get Instagrammed, too.
"Social media is absolutely a double-edged sword for modern marketers," said Lin Humphrey, a former Carnival Cruise Line employee who is now an assistant professor of marketing at Florida International University.
"It's table stakes for consumers," Humphrey said. "They expect access that is reliable for content sharing, but sometimes that is counter to the brand's interest."
Cruise lines are hardly alone in bearing the consequences of widespread social media, as airlines know all too well.
"Everybody with a cellphone is now a photojournalist," said Hinda Mitchell, president of Inspire Group PR in Westerville, Ohio, whose specialties include crisis communications. "You see it on the restaurant side; if somebody's getting bad service or something's wrong with their food, what do they do? They take a picture of it."
Cruise lines used to enjoy a degree of insulation because of the difficulty and expense of sending video at sea. That buffer has evaporated, and today scenes of distress can be transmitted in real time.
When the Carnival Fantasy scraped the side of a lock in a partial Panama Canal transit a few weeks ago, "there were postings on social media before we even knew about it," said Vance Gulliksen, a spokesman for Carnival in Miami.
Still, the change is mostly one of speed and distribution. When typhoons in East Asia in 2007 forced the Sapphire Princess to skip several ports, passengers also gathered in the atrium and confronted the ship's officers. Some emailed from computers in the Internet cafe or used cellphones to call the New York Times.
But streaming video was not yet supported, and social media networks were not nearly as robust.
Several observers said social media can't be controlled, but proper crisis management can reduce the need to use it to be heard.
"It's been my experience over a lot of years of doing this that people want to be heard," Mitchell said. "And I think if it escalates to the level of chanting in the lobby of the ship, my guess is they felt they weren't getting heard any other way."
Managing expectations when things start to go wrong is key to avoiding a snowball of disappointment, she said.
In addition, Mitchell said, cruise lines hoping to avoid a social media debacle should focus on the light, not on the heat.
"One of the things we often talk about is, 'Listen to the issue, not to the rhetoric,'" she said. "The rhetoric was this chanting and this extreme behavior, but what the issue was is they felt frustrated they didn't get their money's worth, that somewhere along the way they didn't get what they bought."
Along the same lines, Mitchell said, a cruise line under social media attack should bring the discussion effectively back to the "why."
"In this case the why is safety," Mitchell said. "It wasn't 'bad weather, oh, it's inconvenient for us.' It was 'bad weather, and [docking] is not the responsible thing to do to keep our passengers safe.' We wouldn't second-guess a pilot who diverted a plane for safety reasons. We might be annoyed, but we wouldn't second-guess it.
"Maybe the part that cruise culture hasn't done as good a job as the airlines have in communicating is that this is still a large vessel on an open sea that can be impacted by acts of God," she said.
Norwegian Cruise Line declined to comment for this report.
At the time of the media blowup, the line issued a statement, saying: "Unfortunately, Norwegian Spirit's itinerary was impacted by severe weather conditions. While nine ports of call were originally planned for the voyage, the revised itinerary allowed the ship to call on eight ports. We are very sorry for any inconvenience and disappointment our guests experienced. As such, we made the decision to offer a 25% future cruise credit."