Sandra Braun examines the communication of disaster

Professor Sandra Braun, PhD, communication studies talks about her opinion on how the Costa Cruise Lines have handled the tragic cruise ship wreck in Italy from a public relationsperspective. Braun is a Mount Royal alumna. 

Prof. Sandra Braun
Prof. Sandra Braun, PhD, examines how Costa Cruise Lines handled communications of their recent ship wreck disaster.

Professor Braun invited a tour industry sales representative, Leslie Keyter, to share some context from her side of the industry to the interview.

FT: What’s generally considered best practice when dealing with a massive tragedy or controversy?

SB: In this climate and this day and age, disclosure and transparency is key. So, keeping people informed and regularly talking and communicating to people about what you are doing is important. That said, the most important point, I find in reading about crisis communication is the expression of sympathy, empathy, remorse.

This always gets people in trouble with lawyers who want you to say nothing but public relations people feel that you can be sympathetic, empathetic and remorseful without accepting blame.

FT: Based on those best practice recommendations, how do you think the cruise line has handled it?

: I think Costa is doing a really good job. During the first several weeks following the ship wreck, their website had a timeline updating how the disaster has been evolving every day. They were posting their actions, what they recommended people to do, and they have been very forthcoming and expressive of remorse and sadness and grief for the situation.

The other important thing is that there hasn’t been any blame shifting, ill spiritedness in these communications. Costa is doing a great job.

FT: Costa is only a subsidiary of Carnival Cruise Lines, which is one of the largest in the world. What do you think about Carnival’s reaction?

Carnival isn’t saying anything. That’s where the ball is being dropped a little bit.

Carnival is really big here in the US and in other places in the world, so for Carnival’s name to be attached to this crisis, and for them not to be doing anything proactive, isn’t a strong strategy, I don’t think.

The one thing they did say is that they are disengaging in promotions and marketing. That’s been their statement, which is huge because they had been ramping up promotions of late.

They don’t have the same interactive, warm website that Costa does. I know Costa is closer to the disaster, but the news is worldwide and I would say that Carnival could take some lessons from them.

FT: Leslie, has this impacted booking?

LK: Honestly, it hasn’t. I know there are some people that say they will never cruise again; these are generally first time cruisers or prospective cruisers. Many of our clients are repeat cruisers and they know that this is an extremely isolated incident.
In fact, a couple of days ago, my receptionist came up to me and said she had some customers at the front who want to book a cruise from Italy, and I thought it was somebody playing a joke.

So this clearly had not deterred them in any way. I think in the travel agency community one of the strongest benefits that we’ve had is the Cruise International Organization.

FT: Is this type of incident more common than most people realize?

LK: No, not at all. Between 2005 through to 2010 there were 16 marine casualty related deaths out of the nearly 100 million passengers carried worldwide. So, in the big picture, it is a very safe industry. What the damaging effect of course, with modern media, is those awful videos coming out of, taken from the ship going down with the water flushing across the carpets. And I think that’s what’s changed media so much today for us all is the cell phone with the video camera and YouTube.

SN: How do you think social media impacts communications around a situation such as this?

I don’t think really it’s the camera that’s the problem; it’s how media uses information. Certainly if you angle a story a certain way for a long period of time, people are going to be left with an impression and more than likely a false impression.
SN: How important is it to counterbalance that?

SB :
I think what Costa is doing is great. Use those same tools to get your message out. They posted right away, they started reporting, they started acting and they started saying what they were acting. So use the media that same way, and communicate.
If someone is communicating with you a certain way, you communicate back that same way. Just be quick, be aware, use the tools, and craft your messages appropriately. But defiantly be present.

From a crisis management perspective, research shows that the general public is fairly forgiving. So if someone makes a mistake, and it comes out in litigation, the public will not react overwhelmingly negative as long as it doesn’t happen again

LK: What is problematic with this situation, keeping the tragedy in the public eye all the time is the ship just lying there on its side. It’s quite a pathetic symbol of the whole situation.

SB: Well, and I think that’s why the US government put Osama Bin Laden in the ocean. They didn’t want a grave site or they didn’t want a monument; Out of sight, out of mind. And that’s a lot of the philosophy behind Holocaust awareness; community organizations don’t want us to forget. If we can keep the memory at the front of our mind, it becomes a part of our thinking and our thoughts. So yes, symbols are very powerful.

SN: There has been some controversy around how the captain handled the incident. How should the organization be handling that controversy?

SB: Well, I think they need to be focused on what’s important, taking care of the passengers and victims. The issue with the captain is a legal matter. So, the best they can do is just be sorry for what happened. They are not accepting blame, they are saying this is terrible and we agree with you this is horrible.

Costa has come out and assigned some blame to the captain, but that’s not their primary message. It’s a minor message.

The lawyers for the captains are saying Costa is to blame because they said the captain called Costa and they knew at a certain time things were going awry, and Costa is saying “no, we didn’t know until later.” So this is something for the courts, and I would, basically say they are doing the right thing by keeping dirty laundry out of the public eye.

There are more important things at stake here than the captain.