The running aground of the cruise ship Costa Concordia has so far meant the death of six passengers, with many also being injured. The reaction by Costa Cruises in its dealing with the press and the information released has caused a stir, not least the company's decision to issue a press release blaming the captain in full for the disaster. Adrian Johnson, managing director of PR and social media agency, Umpf who has handled crisis communications for a number of travel companies, discusses the communications strategy so far.
The tragedy that unfolded on Friday night off the coast of Italy is a PR team’s worst nightmare. And that’s the trouble with crisis comms – there’s no predicting when they will strike, so no matter how prepared you are, they always take you by surprise.
Having been involved in a number of crisis situations for travel clients over the years – hotel deaths, coach crashes, airline incidents – no training course can put you through the mill of a situation where lives are lost and, seemingly, the focus of the world media is pointing at your company.
So knowing what it’s like to have that level of media scrutiny it’s hard to be too critical of Costa. However, as with all crisis situations, there will be an internal review of how comms was handled. And questions will be asked.
I think the most interesting thing is how, late on Sunday evening, Costa was quick to point the finger of blame squarely at the Captain. This could turn out to be a clever damage limitation exercise or, if it’s not accurate, a major PR gaffe.
In a statement issued on its website, the company said “While the investigation is ongoing, preliminary indications are that there may have been significant human error on the part of the ship’s Master, Captain Francesco Schettino, which resulted in these grave consequences.”
But, exact information – such as the full ‘black box’ data and full crew interviews – will have not yet been seen by Costa. So what do they know? Or are they taking a punt? It would surely be a very dangerous accusation to make without some concrete evidence.
However, with damaging media headlines being written about the company – “Captain was in a bar with glamorous woman before tragedy” and “Costa Concordia sailed within hundreds of metres of shore so captain could 'greet friend on the shore' in fly-past move” – perhaps this was evidence enough and they felt it necessary to try and distance themselves at the earliest opportunity.
The first official press statement from Costa was posted on its website at 1am local time, around 4 hours after the ship crashed. Given the time of the event, this is not untypical. However, in it, the company confirmed the evacuation of 3,200 passengers and listed “1,000 passengers of Italian nationality...as well as more of 500 Germans, about 160 French”. Leaving 50% unaccounted for. Until they had a more comprehensive breakdown, this should probably have been omitted from the first statement as it poses more questions than it answers.
The emergency contact telephone number for families was issued via a press statement at noon on Saturday. That’s really basic travel crisis comms stuff, very straightforward in terms of setting up and should have been available much sooner. Independent bodies such as the Travel Trust Association (TTA) were quick to post full details with links to Foreign Office advice, Embassies, Twitter accounts, etc.
Costa issued four press statements on Saturday which is commendable. The media has an insatiable appetite for updates in such situations, and regular press briefings go down well.
If I was being critical, then the final statement issued on Saturday afternoon should have been copy-checked for typos and lost a little in translation.
For example, one quote from Costa’s President reads: “I am here only now because, as you will understand, I have been from the down until now.” Another sentence starts: “First at all”, while the phrase “the ship stroked a rock” offers a far more romantic view of the actual events.
Some may see this as pedantic, but sloppy copy doesn’t reflect well on a company in the firing line for potentially sloppy practices.
One thing I did expect to see or hear was a broadcast interview with a senior Costa official. Whilst the President was quoted in a written statement, his TV no-show is conspicuous by its absence. At times of tragedy compassion is required and a human face of Costa would have helped.
One only has to think back to the Virgin Rail crash in Cumbria five years ago that killed one person and left 80 more injured. Richard Branson was on site within hours giving condolences to those affected via TV and radio interview and it helped shape public opinion to a more positive view.
One final thing, as Mat Morrison, Social Media Strategy at Starcom MediaVest Group, pointed out – there’s never any crisis paid search. Type in ‘Costa Cruises’ into Google and there’s still third party ads being delivered for Costa Cruise holidays. Not something Costa has much sway over, but at the very least they could be running their own Adwords campaign linking to the press statements and the emergency telephone number for relatives.