So what SHOULD a cruise line say when more than 600 passengers fall sick and the cruise is cut short by food poisoning? According to CEO Richard Fain of Royal Caribbean a good response is to say: “Most people understand just how common a thing this is.”
With his ship Explorer of the Seas turned back to New Jersey in January by what is reportedly the largest gastrointestinal illness outbreak in a cruise ship in twenty years, CEO Fain blogged: “We screen our passengers best we can.”
Hardly helpful for what must be one of the most obvious crisis risks for the cruise industry. A week later the Princess ship Caribbean Princess turned back to Pasadena, Texas, when 165 passengers and 11 crew came down with highly infectious norovirus. The shipping line’s spokeswoman initially said the cruise had been cut short by forecast fog in Pasadena and not norovirus, but later claimed “the pattern suggests the illness was brought on board by passengers.”
Now it’s true that norovirus is a very common illness, with an estimated 20 million plus cases every year in the USA alone. And it’s also true that norovirus strikes nursing homes, restaurants, hotels and other places – not just cruise ships. But none of that excuses the failure of two major shipping companies to recognise the need to respond effectively and lack of any real remorse. As Jonathan and Erik Bernstein observed, Royal Caribbean put out two press releases but did not to express “one drop of compassion in either.”
Blaming the passengers is a common response, but as a result of last month’s failed cruises, Time Magazine published its list of the worst norovirus outbreaks on cruise ships in the last five years. Princess Cruises had five out of the list of 13.
Given this history, why does planning to manage an on-board outbreak seem not to be near the top of priorities for obvious risks in the cruise industry? What lessons can be learned?
• A critical role for any CEO in a crisis is to recognise that there IS a crisis. Denial is pointless. As the famous Toyota engineer Taiichi Ohno said: “Having no problems is the biggest problem of all.”
• Use the right spokesperson. The CEO is not always the best choice (see Managing Outcomes 3/11). And in a specialist crisis like an infection outbreak, using an unqualified “PR person” rather than a medical expert to comment on technical matters seems a poor option.
• Say you’re sorry, and mean it. Explaining the truth only when initial denial fails is far too late.
• Don’t “blame the victims.” It might be tempting, especially when the victims are in fact at least partly to blame. But saying so when your reputation is at stake is never a smart move.
• Finally, identify and understand your organisation’s obvious crisis risks, and put proper plans in place. It’s not that hard.