Ashleigh Johnston, Account Executive

I wrote earlier this year on Carnival’s infamous “poop ship” scandal, and how competing cruise lines should try to quell a potential backlash on the industry. Initially, it appeared that cruise lines continued with the status quo and seemed to be no more or less transparent than normal. However, a recent fire on Royal Caribbean’s Grandeur of the Seas showed that someone in their offices was paying attention.

Before dawn, passengers were alerted to a fire on board in the aft mooring section of the ship (where the ropes that the ship uses in port are stored). Emergency plans were immediately enacted. All passengers had to report to their muster station with lifejackets on. Despite reports that the fire had spread to a crew lounge as well, all individuals on board were accounted for and there were no injuries. The fire was extinguished, and the ship, flanked by two coast guard boats and a Carnival cruise ship just in case, arrived without assistance to the nearest port.

On the surface, it seemed like yet another cruise ship incident in what has already been a tumultuous couple of years for the popular industry. But if you were following on Twitter, this took on a very different tone. Royal Caribbean tweeted continuous updates from the very first moment trouble was discovered, including hotlines where loved ones at home could find out more information on the incident in progress and passengers.

The facts of the situation were reported in a simple, straight forward way, including pictures of the damage. Royal Caribbean was the first to let the public know everyone was safe, the situation was contained and the ship was safely in port. The CEO flew into port, boarded the ship and met with passengers. Then, the company tweeted that the remainder of this voyage would be canceled and all passengers would receive a full refund plus a discount on a future cruise. The next several sailings were canceled and Royal Caribbean said passengers on the affected sailings would receive a discount on future cruises.

In these types of situations, the unknown creates panic and a lack of details leaves room for confusion, error and exaggeration. This potent combination is when rumors are born and reputations can die. Royal Caribbean created and controlled the message for the public. There were no panicked passengers frantically calling home or the media because the company was one step ahead. Royal Caribbean crowded the air space with its own updates and facts and came out on top, at least in public opinion and there are numbers to prove it.

 USA Today conducted a poll to gauge people’s thoughts on cruising and while the industry has suffered some in the public eye, Carnival fared worse than its competitors. Royal Caribbean, Norwegian and Holland America’s numbers are substantially more positive – which is especially telling considering Royal Caribbean’s recent incident.

Granted the situations were drastically different, but a fire breaking out in the middle of the ocean still leaves ample opportunity for crew error and rumors to run rampant. The lesson here is, no matter the size or scope of the problem, it is critical for companies to not shy away from controversy and to own up to any crisis. It is to your advantage to get your own message out first rather than react to someone else’s version. When this happens, you begin fighting two different battles – what happened and what is being said about it.

Royal Caribbean didn’t shrug off a contained fire that didn’t disable the ship as nothing serious. Instead they made sure they were honest about the condition of the ship and the well-being of passengers and crew, what the plan going forward was for the passengers, how the public could reach the cruise line to find out about passengers and essentially told the story before anyone else could.

I’ll chalk it up as a success story for Royal Caribbean making a frightening situation perfectly boring just a few days after the incident. The company created an anti-climatic story and the public has a short memory for stories lacking drama.  I have no doubt if cruise lines that face on-board incidents follow this model, the industry will bounce back.