If you were thinking of going on a cruise a few years ago, then there’s a good chance you hesitated before booking, as the cruise-line industry was making waves in the press.
In January 2012, the Costa Concordia capsized and sank after hitting an underwater rock obtrusion off the coast of Tuscany, killing 32 people. And in February 2013, the Carnival Triumph lost power after an engine-room fire in the Gulf of Mexico, leaving passengers stranded and engulfed in raw sewage for five days — a disaster that the media dubbed the “poop cruise.”
These ships both belong to Carnival Corporation, the world’s largest cruise company, which encompasses 10 global brands, including Carnival Cruise Line, Princess Cruises and Holland America Line.
Bookings and revenue decreased, and despite the cruise conglomerate hacking prices to fill its 102 ships, passengers remained scarce.
Carnival Corporation was in need of a brand overhaul. And in a mere three years, the Miami-based cruise company, with the help of LDWWgroup in Dallas, managed to not only improve its public perception but also exceed expectations.
Team members from LDWWgroup spoke with The Strategist about the campaign, which received the 2015 Best of Silver Anvil during the annual awards ceremony in New York on June 4.
Telling a fresh story
Four months after the Triumph incident in June 2013, Carnival Corporation hired PR veteran Roger Frizzell, who had previously led communications efforts for American Airlines and Pacific Gas and Electric, as its first-ever chief communications officer. Frizzell then brought on LDWWgroup.
“We could not ignore that the incidents happened; we had to address them and fix them. But then the goal became, let’s go out and talk about why people like to cruise, why people like to go on vacation, and get the dialogue back to normal,” said LDWWgroup founding partner Ken Luce. “We had to tell the story fresh.”
Carnival Corporation first needed to bolster its commitment to enhancing the safety and operation of its ships. This meant conveying the investments it made to ensure that such incidents did not happen again, said Mike Flanagan, partner at LDWWgroup and lead on the Carnival Corporation account.
After the Triumph debacle, Carnival announced an investment of $650 million to upgrade and improve its ships’ fire safety systems and emergency power sources. Technical experts formed a dedicated task force who worked to research and develop best practices. Carnival also hired former Navy officer Vice Adm. Bill Burke to serve as the company’s first chief maritime officer, whose role is to guide the business in safety, health, environment and security.
In addition, Flanagan said the team worked with major media outlets and invited them onto the ships to see the changes, such as additional emergency generators.
“Being transparent and forthright about how issues had been addressed made a major impact on the media’s reporting, and it went a long way in beginning the process of regaining consumer confidence and turning around the perception of the general public,” Flanagan said.
Promoting good news
Once Carnival Corporation reestablished its credibility, the communications team worked to promote “a nonstop stream” of positive stories, Flanagan said.
The PR team spoke with multiple executives, senior managers and front-line employees to produce numerous story ideas and announcements. Other stories highlighted the company’s leadership in key areas such as innovation, technology, the environment and customer service.
At the same time, there was a parallel initiative to promote cruising as a great vacation experience at an exceptional value, with the goal of generating interest from consumers who had never been on a cruise before.
“We wanted to position the company as a leader in not just the cruise industry but in the broader travel and leisure sector,” Flanagan said.
Creating a cohesive communications plan for a corporation that accounts for 10 separate brands could pose a challenge. Instead, Carnival Corporation and LDWWgroup embraced it.
For example, one brand would take the lead on a news item, such as the announcement of a new ship or organizational changes. Then the corporate communications team would issue similar news, but from a broader standpoint, in a “roll up” release.
“This amplified the good news effort,” Flanagan said. “It was a way to repackage news in a different way and to keep the drumbeat going strong.”
Flanagan stressed that it is important for each of the 10 cruise lines to maintain their distinct identities, as each brand caters to different customers. But developing corporate messaging that applied across all brands — such as exceeding customer expectations and the safety and comfort of guests — was the utmost priority.
LDWWgroup partner Chris Cradduck added: “You have the power of 10 brands communicating with consumers...which all worked together to begin to tell the story of a recovery, both at the brand and corporate level.”
Establishing a digital presence
Flanagan said that the Carnival family brands already had strong media centers, but the corporate website did not.
To rectify this, a newly designed website serves as a hub for press releases, background, photography, video and other content. For the first time, there is a single place where people can go to see announcements from each brand.
And in the fall of 2014, the communications team launched a campaign around Carnival Corporation’s first TV commercial, which aired during the 2015 Super Bowl. The 60-second spot, featuring President John F. Kennedy’s voice, urged travelers to “come back to the sea.”
Leading the way
In July 2013, Carnival Corporation appointed Arnold Donald as chief executive officer. Donald, who was on Carnival’s company board for 12 years, had never run a travel company before.
“He was the right guy for the time,” Luce said. “He loves to cruise, he’s honest, he’s forthright, he’s driven and he’s what you want in a CEO in that he’s not afraid to lead. He understands and enjoys communications and understood the challenges that the business faced.”
Donald was visible from the beginning of the campaign. On the day he was appointed CEO, he agreed to participate in a remote national TV interview. His background — growing up in a poor family in New Orleans and proclaiming to one day become the head of a Fortune 50 science-based company — eventually became another aspect of the corporate story.
“Between making public relations a priority and his expertise as a spokesman, he led the charge in turning around public perception,” Flanagan added. “Arnold is living proof that a CEO who embraces — and respects — the importance of public relations can have a tremendous impact.”
By the middle of 2014, just a year after the Triumph fiasco, YouGov’s Brand Index dubbed Carnival “the most-improved U.S. brand in consumer perception.”
But Carnival Corporation’s efforts will continue.
“If you look at the whole vacation industry, while there’s millions of people who cruise — Carnival Corporation alone hosts nearly 11 million guests a year — there’s [even] more who haven’t,” Luce said. “How do we get people to cruise for the first time? How do we get those who are going on cruises again and again to have more and better experiences? Now we’re talking about: How do we build the business?”