NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- Royal Caribbean cruise line has come under heavy media fire for making a scheduled stop at a private resort in Labadee, Haiti, where it maintains a private beach some 60 miles from the earthquake-ravaged Port-au-Prince (New York Post headline: "Ship of Ghouls."). And despite Royal Caribbean's various pledges to the Haiti relief effort -- a $1 million donation; donating 100% of its net revenue from cruise ship visits to Haiti; and using its vessels to drop off food, water, lounge chairs and beach furniture -- the company is still getting flak for bringing vacationers to Labadee and for the handling of its messaging.
Royal Caribbean argues that many of the country's residents rely on Labadee and the vacationers who stop there. On the company's blog, John Weis, a VP at Royal Caribbean, wrote: "There were a lot of discussions about this, but in the end, Labadee is critical to Haiti's recovery, and hundreds of people rely on Labadee for their livelihood." Royal Caribbean said it will continue to make the stop and that its ship, the Celebrity Solstice, will arrive there Friday. Asked via e-mail if it was concerned a backlash may occur, Cynthia Martinez, manager-corporate communications for Royal Caribbean, said: "We are committed to helping the people of Haiti. We cannot abandon them now when they need us the most."
Ms. Martinez said the company is "very sensitive to the idea of delivering a vacation experience so close to the epicenter of the earthquake," but given the financial and social challenges the country is now facing, it needs the positive economic benefits Royal Caribbean's cruises provide. She added that the company has gotten positive feedback from guests on-board ships visiting Labadee. "On multiple instances, when the captain tells large groups of guests that we are transporting goods, and that the proceeds of calls to Labadee are being donated, the captain has received a standing ovation," she said. "Labadee impacts over 500 local Haitians from nearby villages. We also employ over 200 Haitians on Royal Caribbean International and Celebrity Cruises ships."
Yet PR experts believe there could be lasting damage from the visuals of mostly white vacationers frolicking in the sun in the shadow of an obnoxiously large boat while only 60 miles away thousands of people are fighting over food and water and searching for loved ones. They said Royal Caribbean should have changed its plans regardless of whether it was a scheduled stop and done a better job at getting out in front of its story. Moreover, they said the cruise line should never have tried to mix its commerce and humanitarian efforts in telling its side of the story.
"This strikes a nerve with people, and the brand will take a hit," said Paul Gallagher, managing director of WPP's Burson Marsteller's issues and advocacy practice. "The symbolism and optics of a big white ship sitting right off the beach and people playing were very damaging to the brand, and they have to be prepared for medium to longer-term damage."
'Boggles the mind'
"This is a massive debacle and shows absolutely horrible judgment," said a high-ranking PR executive at a global firm that has worked with travel and leisure companies in the past. "Even if they are donating one million dollars, you can't have pictures of people sunbathing and cruising. Their judgment just boggles the mind. Royal Caribbean should have used the ship as a floating hospital or a temporary housing unit for those who lost homes."
Mr. Gallagher said combining the commerce and humanitarian relief stories is a recipe for disaster. "This happened way too soon," Mr. Gallagher said. "The marines are still coming in, and the relief effort is just getting its footing. If the ship came in with humanitarian efforts, that would have made such a strong statement. But to combine the commerce and relief is a bad decision, and people are responding quite strongly to that."
Bill Imada, chairman-CEO of IW Group, supports Royal Caribbean's decision to dock at Labadee because of the income it generates for the local vendors, but his only complaint is that it happened right after the earthquake. "Clearly that dock was a functioning port which could have been used more efficiently by vessels carrying relief supplies," Mr. Imada said. "With the airport and sea ports in ruins, Haiti needs to keep all of its shipping lanes free of vessels. But tourism is a major source of income for Haiti. We cannot overlook the fact that Royal Caribbean is a major source of hard currency for Haiti and its citizenry."
Gene Grabowski, senior VP-chair of crisis and litigation for Levick Strategic Communications, said Royal Caribbean's biggest mistake was not making its case about how it would help the local economy before the pictures came out. He believes that move could have gotten it some support from people like President Obama. "But that ship has sailed," Mr. Grabowski said. He noted that donations are all well and good, but don't translate visually. "They have the ships, why not commission a ship to deliver supplies or transport suffering people?" Mr. Grabowski said. "They need to do something that can create some visual impact. There's no picture when you donate money."
Jim Joseph, president and partner of Lippe Taylor Brand Communications, said Royal Caribbean is not wrong for arguing that it's helping the local economy, the problem is that the world is a lot bigger than just its consumers. "When you look at it from a more global perspective, and not just the needs of their consumers, it feels wrong for them to go there," he said. "If it were me advising them, I would tell them not to go there. If I were running that company, I would not go there, and [I would] come up with a plan B for my customers that have paid me for that service. If they were smart, they would look at the bigger picture, and the bigger picture is that there are a lot of people here that are suffering."
Eric Dezenhall, CEO and co-founder of Dezenhall Resources, said the symbolism of taking a "party on" approach in this situation would be blackly comic if it weren't really happening. "You never want to give consumers a gratuitous opportunity to be angry with you," Mr. Dezenhall said. "That said, never ascribe to premeditation what can be better explained by foolishness. There may not be an immediate business problem because of this, but it's one of those narratives that tend to linger around a brand."