Thursday, February 9, 2012

When a Sinking Ship Gives that Sinking Feeling: Costa Concordia and Its PR Disaster

Where do I begin with this one? How about the basics?

Why is it that big names seem to go with big doings? And I’m not talking about positive “big doings,” I’m talking about the ironic, disastrous kind. Perhaps if we didn’t christen giant cruise ships with bloated titles like Titanic, whose name means enormous size, strength or power and Costa Concordia, meaning harmony in Latin, these types of human and public relations tragedies wouldn’t happen?

Somehow, though, with 320+ days left to go in 2012, I’m sure this won’t be the last global PR nightmare, nor do I believe a simple name change could inspire a change of outcome. Maybe we even need these types of ironic names to help jolt us out of our collective lunacy and help avoid making repeat mistakes. At least the Costa Concordia, the Carnival Corp.-owned luxury cruise liner that ran aground off the Italian coast earlier in late January, didn’t ram an iceberg, or fail to have enough lifeboats on board. Oh hang on a sec, it didn’t.

But if that’s the best we can say about the tragic maritime crisis, we’re not doing very well. And as public relations professionals, charged with handling, directing and shaping a client’s message, somewhere, somehow, someone, could have, should have done better.

While media attention was first focused on the negligible and cowardly actions of Captain Francesco Schettino, who abandoned ship by accidentally falling into a lifeboat, then refusing coast guard orders to “do your duty” and return to ship, there’s been increasing anger and outright disbelief thrown at Carnival, the parent company of Costa Cruises, which ran and built the ship.

Good question. Where was he indeed?
And rightly so. Carnival and Costa are responsible for ensuring the safety of their passengers and translates into having the right equipment and people. The Wall Street Journal’s recent article “Carnival CEO Lies Low After Wreck,” was as blunt as the company should have been at the start of the crisis. “Where is Micky Arison?” was the article’s four-word sentence opener.

The golden rule in any public relations disaster is to get ahead of the story and go into immediate damage control. From the moment the scope of the disaster was learned, Carnival and Costa should have been unwavering in their public openness. Instead what we got was a delayed, reactionary-type response that paints Arison as “a delegator” and one who is working tirelessly from afar at Carnival’s Miami headquarters. While that may be all well and good, once again, it’s important to remember that very often it’s not reality that matters so much as the perception of reality.

Reality vs. Perceived Reality

Take for example last winter when after repeated snowstorms, Newark, New Jersey Mayor, Cory Booker, after hearing complaints from city residents over unplowed streets, began tweeting his whereabouts as he physically joined the city’s snow removal crews. Residents tweeted their street and roadway conditions and Booker responded in live time when a plow would get through.

He even helped shovel snow and directed the plows to the most congested areas.

Whether it’s a snowstorm or a near-sinking luxury liner, that’s the kind of honesty, transparency and take-no-bullsh*t response that speaks volumes to people everywhere, whether they’re snowed in on Broad Street, Newark, or capsized off the island of Giglio in the Tyrrhenian Sea.

For a golden rule, it’s rather incredible just how often this golden standing gets tarnished. Besides, when it comes to gold, Carnival seems more interested in counting its post-sinking pennies than doing what is right. The Wall Street Journal also reported that the company expects the wreck will lower the company’s net income by $155 million, but that according to a company statement, “the incident will not have a significant long-term impact on our business.”

But isn’t that the very point? The “incident” – that lovely euphemism that translates to mean “an occurrence of seemingly minor importance,” should have a significant long-term impact on the Carnival brand and its business. It certainly has on the passengers onboard the vessel, and the on the families of those who died.

With uninspiring statements like that coming from a company with the PR-prowess of Carnival you can be sure that 2012’s harmony will be upset by further titanic missteps.

At least big doings will continue to be big fodder for my future blog posts, like Susan G. Komen and Goldman Sachs.

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