We continue to watch the Costa Concordia crisis unfold in Italy. Last month’s cruise ship tragedy cost 17 people their lives and at least 17 more people are still missing. Also, there continue to be concerns about fuel leaking into the ocean because bad weather and rough water have delayed the salvage work. The company’s reputation has taken a direct hit and now Costa faces the daunting challenge of trying to re-build its public image. From a crisis communications perspective, let’s look at three rules for damage control to analyze Costa’s response.
1. Communicate Early – Don’t Delay:
In a crisis, your initial response is critical. You want to think things through, but, ideally, you shouldn’t delay too long. Your crisis communications plan should kick in immediately so that you can be pro-active and not just reactive. You want to start communicating your messages as quickly as possible…before people start to judge, blame or say “you’re hiding something”.
Think about the initial timetable in Costa’s response. The Concordia ran aground during the evening of Friday, January 13. The first press release from the parent company, Carnival Corporation, came out in the late afternoon on January 14. The first news conference with the CEO of the Costa line wasn’t scheduled until January 16. By then, we had been flooded with photos, videos, news stories and opinions. The ship could be seen from the island and the passengers were going ashore. And, unlike those on the Titanic, these passengers had all kinds of equipment to help spread the news.
With advances in technology, the speed of the digital age and the social media revolution, everyone can be a broadcaster. We are living in a time when the term “journalist” is being redefined. CNN has just passed the one million mark of registered ijournalists. These are citizen journalists ready to help cover the news if there are no reporters nearby or when more perspectives can improve coverage for an event. In today’s world of communications, you don’t have the luxury of time. Social media, in particular, has been a game changer. You can’t hesitate in your response.
2. Take Responsibility – Don’t look for a scapegoat:
Generally speaking, in a crisis, placing blame squarely on one or more individuals before there has been a full and proper investigation can be a very risky strategy. We saw how quickly Costa put the blame on Captain Francesco Schettino, now nicknamed “Captain Coward”. Schettino admitted fault, but as more details come out, we see it may not be completely clear cut. Apparently, there were precedents for going too close to shore to offer “a salute”. And, leaked transcripts of bugged conversations suggest the captain was told to go close to shore by a company manager. The criminal investigation and the class action lawsuit are also raising questions about company procedure, employee screening, the equipment on the ship and the training provided for the crew.
In a crisis, looking for someone to blame might be a clever tactic, but it could also be a PR gaffe. The company continues on its path to prosecute the captain who is still under house arrest. Today, prosecutors asked he be returned to jail and that he face a sentence of 2,697 years for charges ranging from manslaughter and causing a shipwreck to abandoning his post.
3. Show concern – Be sincere:
The rules of damage control stress how important it is to express concern and to appear sincere. Certainly, Costa has offered condolences and the passengers of the Costa Concordia have been offered a full refund and reimbursement for all expenses. But when the ship’s parent company, Carnival Corporation, offered them a 30 per cent discount off future cruises, the mainstream media coverage and the tone on social media took a decidedly negative turn. The offer was called “ridiculous” and an “insult”. Not only was the gesture completely inappropriate, it had strings attached. The offer was only available for 18 months from the original cruise date. Is it a wonder that many passengers said no thank you and have opted for the class action lawsuit? This bungled attempt at compensation has done little to help re-build a very tarnished reputation.