Carnival Doesn't Shy Away From Triumph Crisis -- But Is Damage Done?

PR Response Has Been Swift and Active, But Test Will Come When Ship Finally Docks

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Thanks to social media and wall-to-wall coverage by CNN, no one has failed to hear about the "cruise from hell," complete with tails of raw sewage running down cabin walls, no air conditioning and rotting food.

"You have 3,100 people on that ship telling their family and friends they're never going on a cruise again, you have tweets and photos coming out now, and you have a freakin' CNN helicopter overhead. You think that's not going to resonate?" said travel expert Jason Clampet, co-founder of travel website skift.com.

Triumph troubles ignite brand crisis for Carnival
Triumph troubles ignite brand crisis for Carnival

And this is just the beginning, as the Carnival Triumph is still limping its way home to port in Mobile, Ala., after being stranded at sea for five days following a fire in the ship's engine room.

Well aware of the potential fallout, Carnival Cruises' crisis team has sprung into action. It created a dedicated page on the Carnival website for news updates and has been consistently updating its Facebook page, which has more than 2 million likes. It is also using two Twitter feeds (@CarnivalCruise and @CarnivalPR) to issue updates, such as "We've taken more than 7,000 calls from family & friends & have been in regular contact with our guests' designated on-shore contacts."

In addition, more than 200 Carnival employees are on the ground in Mobile, Ala., ready to assist disembarking passengers. And Carnival is offering every passenger $500, a flight home, a full refund on their booking on the Triumph, a credit for a future cruise and reimbursement for most of their onboard purchases. The company has also secured hotel rooms in Mobile for family members of people stranded on the ship.

Carnival, said social-media expert Allison Matherly, coordinator of digital engagement for Texas Tech University, on her blog is "not only being transparent about the situation, but they are actively talking about it."

That's not to say there haven't been hiccups. Carnival owner Mickey Arison was lambasted on the web for sitting courtside at Tuesday night's Miami Heat-Portland TrailBlazers basketball game as the crisis continued to unfold. Mr. Arison owns the Miami Heat.

And the hashtag #cruisefromhell has trended on Twitter.

Carnival spokesperson Joyce Oliva said the company has no plans at the moment to do any advertising to reassure its customers about Carnival or cruising in general. "Right now, that is not our concern or is something on our radar," Ms. Oliva said. "I can't tell you 'Yes we're going to do this or no we're going to do that.'"

Much depends on how Carnival responds when the Triumph finally reaches dock. It was initally slated to dock between 3 p.m. and 4 p.m. on Valentine's Day, but setbacks kept moving back the time -- to 7 p.m., then between 7 p.m. and 10 p.m. The current estimation is now midnight on Feb. 15, and it could several hours to get all the passengers off the boat.

Carnival will also suffer an earnings hit due to the crisis. Its stock fell from a high of $39.10 at 11 a.m. on Friday, Feb. 8, to $37.75 at closing Feb. 14. The company said it expects to lose eight cents to 10 cents a share in first-half earnings due to the incident with the Triumph -- partly due to lost bookings as the ship goes into drydock for two months, affecting 12 scheduled sailings, and partly due to lost bookings on other Carnival ships from consumers wary of the brand.

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