There are some issues that can’t be addressed with communications. Yet leaders often categorize all kinds of issues into the bucket of “we need better communications.” Financial issues, share price woes, culture problems, operational problems. Can communications be helpful in these scenarios? For sure. But it isn’t a magic wand.
Flash back 20 years, when a wise, experienced airline executive told an eager Account Executive, “The best defense against a crisis is good operations. If you put an airplane someplace it doesn’t belong, you’ve earned your spot on Page 1, and no amount of communications will fix it.”
Perhaps Carnival Cruise Lines should take that advice. In case you haven’t heard, a 6-year-old boy drowned on a Carnival ship, whose standard operating procedure is to not have lifeguards at its pools. This follows a string of reputation damaging incidents including the “Poop Cruise” that have caused the company to adjust guidance to Wall Street downward, citing a series of ship mishaps and diminished consumer confidence. Cue all of the references to smooth sailing, choppy waters and the Carnival Dream turning to a nightmare.
Also cue the crisis communications experts opining about how the Company could improve its reputation with more timely communication to passengers in a crisis, better communication to consumers about cruise ship safety, and the like. (True, by the way, but treating the symptom not the disease.)
Branding experts are swirling around the “brand problems” – and how the original vision of being the “fun ship” with branding inspired by Brazil’s festive Carnivale has morphed into exactly what most people think of when you say “carnival” – rickety rides, questionable safety and creepy “Carney people.”
The data would suggest that the cruise industry has a major upside: only 1 in 4 Americans have ever been on a cruise. But half of Americans say they won’t consider a cruise. That isn’t a communications problem, or a brand problem. It’s a reputational problem. Carnival has become the poster child for why half of Americans won’t cruise: because it seems like a risky proposition.
Here’s my view: Carnival needs to run a tighter ship. There is a reason that expression refers to ships…when you put thousands of people on a floating tin can, you’d better not strand them in the middle of the ocean without food, air conditioning or bathrooms. And your ship better not sink. Or break down.
Focus on your operations. Review your policies. Maybe family cruise ship pools should have lifeguards? Begin with an internal communications initiative so employees understand what is expected. This is the only way Carnival can rebuild its reputation.