Monday, January 23, 2012

Is Carnival's CEO MIA?

It’s been more than a week since the cruise ship Costa Concordia ran aground off the Italian coast. Costa Crociere SpA’s CEO Pier Luigi Foschi has issued statements and held press conferences. Notably missing from the response is Mickey Arison, CEO of Costa’s parent company, Carnival Corp. 

A Wall Street Journal article on the subject notes Arison is known for a hands-off management style and he gives his leaders wide latitude in running each of the ten cruise lines that Carnival owns.

Based on the where the crisis is right now this is the right call.

Costa's CEO is Italian, the cruise line is based in Italy and the accident happened a few hundred meters off the Italian coast. He speaks the language. His press conferences and statements have been in Italian. This is a global story certainly, but one based in Italy.

Reflect back to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010. BP CEO Tony Hayward was barbequed in the US press because of his “foreign” accent (Disclosure: BP is a Signal Bridge client). Hayward and the company were criticized for being tone deaf to the needs of the residents along the Gulf Coast who were suffering. A rich Englishman couldn’t possibly understand the concerns and needs of the shrimper from Plaquemines Parish. It was an unfair criticism, but it stuck. Arison would be considered a foreigner if he went to Italy. 

Former Exxon CEO Lawrence Rawl
Bitter Much?
If you go back to the Exxon Valdez (1989), the CEO was roundly criticized for doing only three interviews in the first six weeks of the disaster. Apply the same logic to the Deepwater Horizon spill and you can understand why the company put Hayward nearly every where after the spill. Hayward and the company paid dearly for that decision as he made a number of memorable gaffs during interviews about the response and was photographed aboard his yacht as the company struggled to plug the runaway well.

Can Arison add anything to the response in Italy? He has Tweeted his sympathy to victims of the accident and in a company news release. There appears to be no lack of resources in the response run out of Italy, although there have been some PR mis-steps.

There are two key questions that PR types should be asking right now: What can Arison add to the response? And is it worth the risk that he might make a mistake that comes to overshadow the response? 

Unless there is a compelling case that the victims of the disaster benefit from his presence, Micky Arison should stay in Miami.

Bill Salvin

Friday, January 20, 2012

The Predictable Demise of the Costa Concordia

You know you have a big crisis when it can be seen from outer space.

While the images of the Costa Concordia lying on its side are unbelievable, the crisis was quite predictable, just like most crises. When crises strike, there are common elements that play out in a fairly predictable way. If you know them, you can be better prepared for a crisis at your company.

The first element common to most crises is surprise. I tell my clients that they better plan for that which they think impossible. I have heard "that will never happen" or "there's no way that could happen" from many people who've then had to deal with exactly the kind of crisis they said would never happen. History is filled with this type of arrogance (see Titanic, circa 1912). The passage below was written by Theresa Norton Masek who writes the Travel Pulse blog.

I first saw the photo of the Costa Concordia on its side half-submerged on my iPhone as I was preparing to disembark the Wind Surf in St. Maarten. Up until that sickening moment, I would have confidently assured anyone that such a disaster was impossible in this day and age.
Because people don't think things are possible, they often don't prepare to respond to the crisis. That leads to panic. Stories of the panicked, disorganized evacuation abound. There are even video clips taken from people's mobile phones that show first hand what it was like aboard the stricken ship. A certain amount of panic is expected when more than 4,000 people are involved, but the better prepared you are, the less panic there is.
Denial is the third common element in a crisis. Just off the coast of a picturesque Italian island there were no radio calls to the Italian Coast Guard from Concordia's bridge. In fact, the Coast Guard found out about a problem aboard the ship when passengers called relatives who then called police. The police notified the Coast Guard. Here is a timeline from The Telegraph in the UK.

10.06pm Coastguard calls Capt Schettino and asks him what is going on. He tells them “It’s all OK, it’s just a blackout, we’re taking care of the situation.” 
10.16pm Coastguard calls him again and he admits water is coming into the hull but says there is no emergency.
10.30pm Under pressure from the coastguard, the captain agrees to send a Mayday signal – 50 minutes after the collision. The ship is by now listing at 20 degrees. 
10.50pm Again under pressure from the coastguard, the captain orders the ship to be abandoned – 70 minutes after the vessel smashed into the rock. 
In every crisis, there is intense media scrutiny. I grabbed a quick screen shot from Google Thursday morning using "Costa Concordia" as the search term.

Nearly eighteen thousand stories since last Friday evening. That's about 3,000 stories a day (it's more than 21,000 stories now). One of the rules of crisis communications used to be that you want to be part of every story done about your company. That is simply not possible in today's information environment.

There other elements common to a crisis and I'll write about those in a future post. The sad part of all of this is that it didn't have to happen.

Most crises don't.

Bill Salvin

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Transparency Faux Pas: Disclosure Matters

I spend a good bit of time in this space critiquing the performance of others. It seems only fair that when I make a boneheaded move that I share it.

The other day, New York Times Columnist Joe Nocera wrote a column titled “BP Makes Amends” about the company’s actions since the disastrous Gulf of Mexico oil spill in 2010.

I posted the link to my Facebook page and you can see below what I wrote. What I didn’t do was disclose that BP is one of my clients. In fact, I spent most of the spring and summer of 2010 in the Gulf working for the company as it responded to the spill. I did interviews on behalf of BP and worked very closely advising several senior company execs. (Disclosure: not that one)

I post a lot of links to stories I find interesting. Very few of those do I have any connection with other than I liked the story. I thought in this case that most of my Facebook friends know me and know I worked the spill. Peter King is a top flight reporter for CBS News. I've worked with him over the years through my work in the Space Shuttle program and work for BP during the spill.

I know better and Peter was right to point that out. 

Personal and professional lives are intertwined these days. There's rarely any harm that comes from transparency. Good reporters (like Peter) use their social networks like most of us do: to do their jobs. 

I'm proud that I was a very small part of the most comprehensive oil spill response in history. That's why I wanted to share the story. 

Disclosure doesn't have to be arduous or overwrought, it just needs to be clear like: (Disclosure: BP is a client)

When it comes to transparency always remember that what you leave out can obscure what you want people to see. 

Thanks for the reminder, Peter. 

Bill Salvin

Monday, January 16, 2012

Shipwrecked Captain Thrown Under Bus

That didn't take long.

Carnival Corporation's Costa Crociere CEO today blamed the captain of the Concordia's captain for grounding the vessel late last week off the coast of Italy. As of this writing, six people have died in the tragedy and 16 people remain missing. This accident has turned to a crisis for the largest company in the cruise industry and the industry itself.

The ship's captain was detained by Italian authorities shortly after the accident. He was charged with manslaughter and abandoning ship before everyone was off the vessel. Multiple newspaper accounts include statements from passengers and Italian Coast Guard authorities about the captain leaving the ship. According to one AP report, members of the Coast Guard even tried to persuade the captain to return to the ship to oversee the evacuation. The captain refused.

Was it the right thing to do to blame the captain? Is this crisis such an existential threat to the company that decisive action was required? Is there no benefit to waiting for an investigation, which at this point has yet to begin?

From a crisis response perspective, I'm interested in your thoughts about the company's actions. What do you think?