Five Things Carnival Cruises Needs To Do Right Now

After being adrift for days after an on board fire knocked out water and power, the Carnival Triumph cruise ship finally made its way back to shore.

Passengers disembarking the ship late last night told stories about urinating into sinks and defecating into plastic bags, waiting hours to be served a cold meal, and sleeping in a makeshift tent city on the deck to avoid the sweltering cabins below.

And the cable news networks—which covered the return of the ship with the same fanfare one might have expected for the return of the American hostages who were held captive in Iran for 444 days in the early 1980s—took a bad news story for Carnival and turned it into the most important story in the entire world. (CNN journalists should be feeling a particular sense of shame today for their absurd excess in covering this story.)

As a result of both their very real corporate crisis and the media’s excess in covering it, Carnival will have to do a lot of things right to keep this incident from turning into a much larger, longer-lasting disaster for its brand.

Here are five things Carnival should do to recover from this incident:

1. Continue to Treat Passengers Well: Carnival’s CEO boarded the ship last night to personally apologize to his “guests.” His presence was important and sent a signal that Carnival was taking this incident seriously and treating its victims well. Carnival said it would refund the full fare for its guests, pay for their transportation home, and give them a $500 check for their troubles.

2. Communicate More Quickly: Carnival got off to a slow start when communicating about this incident, taking two days before CEO Gerry Cahill finally apologized. That slow communication was a big violation of one of the seven truths of a crisis. The onboard communication was also slow; many passengers said they received their information from the news media and their cell phones, since the crew wasn’t keeping them regularly updated.  

3. Create a Passenger Bill of Rights: When Jet Blue faced its own media crisis after canceling hundreds of flights and leaving passengers stuck on grounded planes without food or water for many hours in 2007, CEO David Neeleman responded by releasing a  “Passenger Bill of Rights.” That “Bill of Rights” offers passengers increasing levels of compensation based on the length of their flight delays, and offers a good roadmap for Carnival.

4. Do a Full Investigation: This incident isn’t an anomaly. Carnival had a similar incident in 2010, and the Triumph itself had propulsion problems last month. Carnival also owned the ill-fated Costa Concordia, which partially capsized last year in Italy, killing 32. The cruise company will need to conduct a full investigation of what went wrong, make any necessary fixes, and make the full results of the investigation — as damning as they may be — public.

5. Change the Ship’s Name: Not only is the ship’s name “Triumph” tainted by negative attention but, given the ship’s track record, it seems like a bit of a joke. If Carnival doesn’t change the name, every potential customer who researches the cruise line will come across these stories. Carnival shouldn’t change the name just for marketing purposes, of course – they’ll need to make all of the necessary changes to make sure the newly named ship doesn’t run into similar problems. 

A grateful tip o’ the hat to fellow communicators Jonathan Bernstein, Jeff Domansky, Melissa Agnes, and Chris Syme, all of whom shared their thoughts with me on how to handle this crisis.

You can listen to my interview on Washington D.C.’s WTOP radio about this incident here.