Cruise Company Execs Respond to Costa Concordia Tragedy

The Costa Concordia, off the coast of Tuscany. Photo: News Pictures / Rex Features

The saga of the Costa Concordia cruise ship that ran aground off the Italian coast continues to unfold, step by step, on a worldwide stage. Media reports, photos, passenger videos, and an audio of the captain have all documented what went wrong from a safety standpoint.

The company’s initial crisis communications response has been mainly reactive. (You can view video and gather info about the company’s response on its website.) Company leadership in Italy have held two press conferences to respond to the tragedy. The cruise line is owned by Carnival, and its CEO has spoken about the accident as well, although from here in the U.S.

“Whenever there are fatalities and serious injuries, it’s important for the most senior leadership to be visible,” Bloomberg quotes Ogilvy PR’s Peter Hirsch, who spoke with them about the issue.

The cruise line is also facing other issues. And while this is a unique tragedy, the issue of crisis communications, even in the most dire of situations, has been discussed by the PR industry in the past.

The cruise line has not been able to stay in front of the story since so many surviving passenger and crew member accounts have offered their firsthand version of events. In addition, there is now a Facebook page of the Costa Concordia captain in a white tuxedo, along with multiple posts criticizing him.

Last January PRNewser covered an AMA NY event about responding to brand crises. Kirk Stewart, EVP at APCO Worldwide, presented guidelines for how companies should respond. We reviewed some of his tips in light of the Costa Concordia media coverage, and we consulted with him again for his perspective on the company’s current situation.

-Speak with one voice and pick the right spokesperson. In the past few days various Costa Cruises and Carnival executives and spokespeople have made statements. Stewart noted, “Lately, the multiple spokesperson syndrome seems to be plaguing many other companies faced with a crisis.  It definitely creates some unnecessary uncertainty and confusion.”

Tone and volume matter, choose your language carefully. The tone of Costa’s statements has been somber, utilizing words such as “deeply saddened,” “shocked,” and “tragedy”, as well as offering condolences to the victim’s families and acknowledging the widespread rescue efforts.

As Stewart observed, “The right tone is one of concern for the victims and their families first and foremost along with a clear point of view on what the company is doing to determine the cause and to help ensure an incident like this doesn’t happen again.”

-Be fast but accurate. The initial Costa company comments about the incident appeared within hours after the ship ran aground. However, key pieces of information provided by the company about the ship’s course and the evacuation turned out to be inaccurate.

According to Stewart, “This is a real challenge given the loss of life and potential legal exposure and the company will likely be very measured now. Clearly, the passenger voices are carrying the day and at some point the company needs to clarify exactly what happened from their perspective.”

-Take responsibility for what happened, be humble and not defensive.  The first Costa statements appeared to defend the Captain, followed by subsequent comments acknowledging he may be at fault. As Stewart acknowledged, “given the loss of life how they characterize their responsibility will have to be very measured and heavily influenced by their legal counsel.”

Stay close to your customers and provide reassurance using all available tools. Stewart pointed out that among the company’s key stakeholders now are their current and prospective passengers and that despite this tragic incident, Costa and Carnival still have a business to run. As he noted, “Current and potential passengers will want some reassurance of the safety precautions and procedures across the board.”

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