Jeri Clausing
Jeri Clausing

When an unusually hot and dry summer began disrupting river cruise traffic last fall, I was surprised at how hesitant many lines were at first to discuss what was going on and how they were dealing with changing itineraries.

Obviously they didn't want to scare off future bookings, but what's worse than having your customers caught off guard, thinking information was intentionally being withheld?

Most came around and began talking candidly about the problems and their solutions. After all, when companies run into problems, PR 101 tells you to stay ahead of the headlines and let your customers know you are in full control.

So I was stunned by the response by Viking this year to a rash of accidents involving its ships, most recently declining to even confirm that one of its ships hit a lock on the Main-Danube canal, disrupting river traffic for weeks.

According to one travel agent who was on a Viking ship behind the one involved, there were questions at the time about whether it was the ship's fault or whether the lock operator closed the gate too soon.

The longer Viking goes without issuing any comment, the more likely people will assume it was the line's fault. After all, as in any relationship, transparency is key to trust. And Viking has been anything but transparent, declining repeated requests for simple confirmation of the accident. Its web site says only that the lock is closed indefinitely for repairs.

David Trumble, a veteran hotel communications executive and now principal of Integrated Crisis Management Solutions, says burying one's head in the sand "is an unfortunate yet common practice that is a disservice to both Viking's clients and the general public. In this era of social media and 'citizen journalism,' it is all the more important for organizations like Viking to act transparently and share whatever facts are available to offset inaccurate information."

And he warns that the fallout of poorly managed crisis communication can have long-term damage.

"The relationship between a brand's reputation and customer trust are fragile and come with big stakes financially," he said. "In a mere matter of seconds, decades of goodwill can go up in smoke because of a poorly managed crisis. Transparency and owning the issue upfront is the difference between making an orderly recovery versus perpetuating a negative situation due to inaction which will only worsen if played out by the public. "

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