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Disaster at Sea - Crisis Management Expert Offers Advice on Handling Cruise Ship Catastrophes

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April 07, 2020
Cruise | Technology
Fran Worrall

With coronavirus being front-page news, cruise lines are facing one of the worst crises ever. And with it, a public relations nightmare. “When events like this occur, especially in today’s technologically connected environment, it doesn’t take long for fear and hysteria to circle the globe,” said Virgil Scudder, a Miami-based crisis management consultant and author of World Class Communication: How Great CEOs Win with the Public, Shareholders, Employees and the Media. 

There's no need for cruise lines to be blindsided by disaster. “It’s really not difficult to foresee the worst and be prepared for it,” said Scudder, who has provided coaching and public relations counsel to some of the world’s largest hospitality companies, including air lines, cruise lines, hotels and resorts. “It all comes down to taking the time to plan.” Following, he provides his best advice for managing any type of crisis, from engine fi res to coral reefs to disease outbreaks. 


First, keep in mind that most crises are predictable. “If you think about the industry’s vulnerabilities, you can come up with a list of possible disasters, whether natural or man-made. The key is readiness,” said Scudder, who advises companies to watch what’s going on in the world. “We’re in an era where diseases can spread within days, so something like coronavirus isn’t a big surprise.”

Next, have a plan in place. Most companies have a disaster recovery plan but not a disaster communications plan. “That’s a huge mistake,” he said. “In any large organization, it’s not whether a crisis will hit, but when it will hit and how bad it will be. And it’s too late to come up with a response plan after the fact.” Scudder suggests establishing a crisis response team and drafting a plan that clearly outlines the responsibilities of each member.

If crisis situations might involve injury or loss of life, as is the case in the cruise line industry, bring in crisis handling experts to conduct simulations that require chief executives to think on their feet and respond eff ectively under pressure. “This should be done periodically, not once and forgotten,” he said. Also, post the plan online so everyone in the company can review it. Of course, a printed back-up is also necessary in case connectivity is lost. A company spokesperson is also a necessity.

Although it goes without saying that the organization should assign this task to someone with crisis communications expertise, many companies fail to do so and reap the negative results. “Companies often get into trouble when an inexperienced spokesperson becomes involved in a crisis. He might embellish or go off script. Or, she might try to minimize the problem,” he said. “If the situation is worse the next day, your credibility will be destroyed.” The spokesperson should be empathetic, not defensive. He or she should also be clear, concise and credible. “How you present the company to the media is critical,” Scudder said, suggesting that cruise lines develop talking points to address possible media questions. “That way, you control the agenda, which is always important in a crisis situation.”


It’s also crucial to act quickly when a crisis occurs. Otherwise, the news may be broadcast from another source, making it look like the company has something to hide. “There’s a public perception in every crisis, regardless of your intentions,” Scudder said, adding that the perception often comes down to ‘good vs. evil’ in the minds of consumers. “Is this a decent cruise line that had a misfortune and responded swiftly and responsibly? Or is this an unscrupulous cruise line that failed to respond in a timely manner and has something to hide?” Always be accountable, he advises. “If the crisis is due to any failure or shortcoming on your part, never try to cover it up.” Instead, craft a statement that positions the company as responsible and that addresses passenger concerns.

Also, express the organization’s efforts to solve the problem. “This is your opportunity to make a good impression and position the company as credible and cooperative. Keep in mind that many consumers will base their future travel decisions on the way you handle the crisis.” It’s also important to understand the role of social media, where news can spread globally within hours. Appoint someone to monitor Twitter, Facebook and other social media accounts and respond quickly to comments, particularly to negative press. “Social media off ers a great way to communicate directly to customers, reassuring them when appropriate and keeping them in the loop regarding new developments,” he said. And, after the media fi restorm dies down, publish positive new content on social media sites, which will serve the purpose of pushing the disaster down in online search results. “You want to reinforce positive messages as much as possible.”

Finally, remember that regardless of how bad the situation seems, it will pass eventually. “The cruise industry has had its share of overcoming disasters,” Scudder concluded. “Ultimately, you want to convey a message of empathy and hope. If you do that, your customers won't give up cruising with you."

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