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Carnival’s Cahill Salvages PR Triumph

Don’t you wonder about that first call from the Carnival PR team to the CEO?

Um, Cap, problem in the Gulf.

What time is it? And don’t call me Cap!

The Triumph’s stranded; 4,000-plus on board. CNN’s leading with “busted toilets, hot rooms and headaches.”

Ok, get everyone together. I’ll be right in.

Carnival. Triumph. Unfortunate names when a crisis breaks out, unless you’re a headline writer who lives for such irony. Carnival’s fleet also includes the Legend, Conquest and Elation.

The drama began last Sunday when an engine room fire broke out as the Triumph was heading back to Galveston, Texas. No one was hurt, but the ship wound up adrift off Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula.

Sounds kind of idyllic, right?

Rolling waves, gorgeous sky, white sand beaches. Not if you’re stuck on a hot, smelly ship. News accounts soon began detailing conditions that were far from what passengers expected when they signed up.

Enter Carnival CEO Gerry Cahill, who went public mid-week with a video that offers an interesting study in crisis management. Dressed as you might expect of a cruise line exec (dark sports coat, blue dress shirt, no tie), Cahill began with an apology that he repeated three times in six minutes. He also:

– Stepped up and quickly owned the mess, saying, “We did not deliver on our promise.”

– Showed the proper concern, citing as top priorities safety, comfort and getting everyone home fast as possible.

– Lifted the corporate veil, revealing that the company, while trying to get power up after the fire, also contracted for two tugboats just in case …

– Outlined an action plan that included charter flights and hotel rooms.

– Repeated key messages, tossing in compliments for the stranded passengers, their families, and his own employees.

Of course all this came against a flood of reports about worsening conditions.

“Horrible,” one passenger told CNN as the ship was finally yanked into port late Thursday.

Still, stuff happens, and companies have to deal with it. Nothing Cahill said was worth more than the praise that beleaguered passengers had for the crew. That’s powerful, given their miserable days aboard a ship without toilets or electricity.

Carnival can also take heart from Toyota, which not so long ago was dealing with sticky gas pedals. Toyota recently reclaimed the title of world’s largest automaker.

And you may remember Exxon reeling in 1989 after the Valdez oil spill. PR pros still use then-Chairman Lawrence Rawl’s CBS interview as a study in how not to do it. Yet Exxon just overtook Apple as the nation’s biggest company.

All of which suggests that the embattled cruise line has taken on some water, but is far from sunk.

Would you book a cruise on Carnival right now?

Cahill press conference.

CNN Triumph report.

Read more posts by Steve Piacente, a former print journalist and correspondent.