By Ben Dipietro of wsj.com
This week’s crisis involves the response from Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines (RCL +0.97%) to criticism it received after sailing one of its ships during hurricane conditions—a situation that left some passengers fearing for their safety. The Anthem of the Seas had to return to port.
The company was questioned on why it let the ship set sail when there was a storm with winds of more than 100 miles per hour and after the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration sent out alerts four days in advance. CNN quoted a company spokesman as saying it was the decision of the ship’s captain as to whether to sail.
In the wake of the incident, the company took to Twitter and issued a statement apologizing to customers, offering them refunds and admitting “we need to do better.” Despite that, a U.S. senator is asking for the government to investigate.
Looking solely at the statements issued by the company and the comments of its spokespeople, the crisis experts break down what the company did right and what it did wrong.
Jennifer Vickery, chief executive, National Strategies Public Relations: “Royal Caribbean sailed their communications in the wrong direction. They left their passengers–who are also their money-generating customers–in a precarious position by claiming their captain had sole discretion to put thousands of passengers at risk. Its response on Twitter was lackluster and in a way assumed only 50% of responsibility by offering a future voucher for 50% off, thereby requiring those passengers to continue to spend money with them. Its statement that its offer was for ‘what they went through’ was unjust, uncaring and flat-out tired. The company really needed to communicate the depth of the situation, which seemed to have been incredibly scary. It put the responsibility on the captain, deflecting its own liability.
“How can future passengers truly feel secure about their purchase power knowing their safety [depends on the] discretion of a single-person, the captain, and not the corporation with which they are doing business? The experience sounds nightmarish and its communications matched.”
Ira Kalb, assistant professor of clinical marketing at the USC Marshall School of Business: “Royal Caribbean’s initial statements related to its sailing into a hurricane are difficult for some to believe. The company appeared to scapegoat the captain by saying it was his decision to sail. Even if true, the public will wonder why there’s no company oversight of one man’s decision.
“In a tweet, Royal Caribbean took credit for turning back to port by saying it ‘was made for guests’ comfort due to weather forecasts.’ After learning guests were terrified and the Ocean Prediction Center warned about the weather days before it set sail, a skeptical public might think the company is putting a self-serving spin on the truth while compromising its credibility.
“After the incident, Royal Caribbean followed proper crisis management protocols by apologizing, offering refunds and credits and limiting the scope by saying ‘only four people had minor injuries.’ It did not go far enough with the last protocol–proposing a solution so it won’t happen again. In fact, its statement ‘We simply didn’t anticipate that it could be 125-mile-per-hour winds’ may cause prospective customers to wonder ‘Why not?’ and choose other carriers for future trips.
“If Royal Caribbean wants to restore the public’s trust, it should clearly communicate the changes it will make to avoid a recurrence of this incident. Customers want reassurance that there is some oversight of a captain’s decisions. They’d like to feel secure the cruise company they selected will take whatever measures necessary to ensure a safe, enjoyable journey.”