Reputation management: Royal Caribbean and Haiti

External crises can force companies to make consternating choices.

Royal Caribbean has come under fire for continuing to dock its cruise ships on the Haitian peninsula of Labadee in light of the devastating earthquake. An article in The Gaurdian, later picked up by The Huffington Post and the LA Times travel blog, among other outlets, questions whether passengers should be sunning themselves and enjoying cocktails on the beach when so many are suffering in Port au Prince.

It’s a sticky situation for Royal Caribbean. On the one hand, they’ve used their cruise ships to deliver pallets upon pallets of supplies and drinking water for the residents of Haiti. They’re bringing economic activity to Labadee, where hundreds of Haitians rely on tourism income to feed their families (in fact, it’s probably less a matter of the positive economic impact of the cruise passengers than it is the avoidance of the negative impact should the cruise ship divert to somewhere else and thus leave those who depend on tourism revenues in a lurch). Royal Caribbean has also pledged $1 million in relief to Haiti.

Opinions are flying around the Internet and in the media as to whether RCCL is doing the right thing. Passengers themselves are divided, and some refused to disembark during the Labadee visit and stayed on the ship. Others are glad to be spending their money and be involved with the relief effort. Some have made the argument that Haiti (and for that matter, most Caribbean vacation destinations) was abjectly poor and in need before the earthquake, yet that didn’t stop cruise ships from docking there and passengers from visiting.

It’s a reputation management nightmare. There’s no clear-cut “right answer” that will make all RCCL stakeholders happy. Royal Caribbean made its decision and while many are supportive of their efforts, some are swearing off the cruise line and calling it insensitive, shameful, or even disgusting.

Blogging the company’s rationale

I do admire the way Royal Caribbean has communicated throughout this crisis. The company’s blog, written primarily by the CEO, has been almost entirely devoted to Haiti for the last two weeks. One post details the internal processes the company is using to monitor and manage the situation in Haiti – they’ve even posted a link to a .pdf of their daily meeting notes. Another post addresses the Guardian article and defends their decision to continue operations in Haiti. They’ve posted several photos of relief supplies and discuss a meeting with President Clinton. Both the CEO, Adam Goldstein, and Associate Vice President, John Weis, are posting a few times a day.

Sometimes CEO blogs get a bad rap, and it’s often deserved. They can be dry and uninformative. But having a CEO or company blog in place gives you an instant response platform when a crisis arises. Royal Caribbean had to make a tough call, and through its blog has been able to not only explain and defend its decision in detail but also receive instant feedback by way of comments. Many of the comments support the company’s choice.

I’m sure the RCCL team agonized over what the proper course of action was. I’m still not entirely sure what I would have chosen to do had I been the one making the choice. But I can appreciate that Royal Caribbean was honest, forthright and transparent about its reasons and processes with its customers. I read the posts and can relate to Adam and John as real people who had to make a difficult decision and ultimately are trying to do right by the people of Haiti, their employees, their customers and the public at large.

Did they get the communications piece right?

I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments. Instead of debating whether or not RCCL made the right choice to continue docking in Labadee (those discussions are happening all over the Web at the links I included above), I’m more interested in hearing your reactions to how they’ve communicated their choices and actions during this crisis. What could they or should they have done differently? What risks do they still face in terms of reputation management and how do you think they should address them?

How you can help

My earlier post on how to donate and support Haiti relief efforts

Image via Royal Caribbean’s Why Not blog

14 thoughts on “Reputation management: Royal Caribbean and Haiti

  1. Was discussing this today at work when someone spotted chatter on Land’s End Facebook fanpage that was turning slightly negative over $5 custom monogram stitching for dog jackets that the page was promoting. Someone else chimed in about complaints that had filed into I believe the Gap’s fanpage over the amount they donated to Haitian relief efforts. I think the amount was $150K and people were mocking the Gap as if it was too little.

    It is a tricky thing because I think you really are in a no win situation as RCCL or any company that chooses to help, let alone has to do business down there. In my opinion no possible good comes from RCCL halting bringing the tourism trade down there, if anything it just puts further salt in the wound. In this modern real time communication environment a lot of people are going to rush to judgement on about motives and practices of businesses during historic events. Unfortunately life and nature happens. The fact is people are helping and money and supplies are headed to the area. As you point out RCCL’s CEO has been fairly open and transparent about the situation. Even in a world minus social media I’d like to think they would be sending the supplies and trying with as much tact as possible to keep the commerce they bring to the region moving.

    • Patrick, thanks for your thoughts. I’ve also just started to see articles and “chatter” cropping up questioning the proper/adequate amounts that businesses should be giving to Haiti relief. Maybe I’m not remembering correctly, but I don’t recall this same level of scrutiny of donations after the Tsunami, Katrina, or the earthquakes in Pakistan or China. It seems as though people are much more sensitive to relief efforts in Haiti and quicker to slam organizations that aren’t doing what people think they should to help. I’m not sure what’s different this time.

      • The open source communication channels have certainly dialed up a notch since each of the events you mentioned. I think what is different is that people who may have thought these things five years ago now feel the need and comfortability to share these thoughts outloud.

        When such a monumental catastrophe strikes it tends to strike people at their core and make them really think hard and long about the meaning of “things”. It is tough but questioning intentions or actions is really counter productive in my opinion, the only thing that can truly be focused on are the postive actions and outcomes that come about via more connected and aware people. Imagine back 5, 10 and 20 years ago, hard to argue the situation and outcomes would not be significantly worse in a similar disaster in Haiti or even in a more developed and prosporus country. As funny as Staples commercials are, there is no “Easy” button.

        You hit on a great angle in this over all story that is happening right now. No matter what any person, company or government does, there will be a line of individuals ready and willing to say their actions are insufficent or worse yet wrong.

        When I was at Shea Stadium on Sunday September 23, 2001, I recall many of my co-workers, and some good friends as well as a few people in my family raising an eyebrow as to why I would be doing this. I went with my sister who is also a big Met fan, who also happened to be among the fortunate individuals who was able to evacuate her offices in the South Tower of the World Trade Center. I made that choice because she needed something resembling normalcy, a reason not to feel guilty or angry or whatever. The fact was going to that game or not going to that game wouldn’t change the events that had occurred or that were still occurring.

        Being humane and responsible is important. Being a good corporate citizen, I believe to be an important part of any companies motives. But I thnk as individual people trying to create perspective around an event that causes us to pause and reflect, we are better served to look for solutions vs. pointing fingers. I think you did a great job showing how RCCL is seeking solutions.

      • Quick thought, and no evidence to support it, I wonder if the increased interest could be being sparked in part by the text fundraising campaign, which has increased the number of consumers giving, and therefore paying attention to who else is? For the younger set donating for the first time, it might lend them a sense of moral permission to be more critical of the corporate set… “Hey, I’m struggling with car payment, student loans, etc, and still managed to give $10 – what are YOU doing corporate leaders?” May have put giving more on their radars than it was in previous events.

  2. I looked at the blog too, and was impressed. I think the other point to be made here, is how important it is to use many many channels of communication. On radio and TV, I have only heard the negative side of this story – I would have no idea about their donations, etc. It may be time for them to get some more visibility on mainstream channels – even if it is buying inspirational ad time or telethon sponsorship space to illustrate the complexities and the good work being done. Online media is important, but so are traditional channels – Is their target audience reading blogs? Or, are they the luddites watching mainsteam news media? The blog is great AND they also need to get in front of the TV camera.

    • I agree that multi-channel (or “transmedia”) storytelling is important. But I think the blog is also helping to seed and act as an “official company position” that a lot of the mainstream media are referring back to and quoting. I’m sure the RCCL team is overwhelmed right now with everything from operations to relief efforts to media relations to their normal, non-Haiti related issues. So do they just focus on the blog and on doing that well, or try to do a lot of other things on top of it?

      I’m not sure if buying ad/sponsorship would help right now. There’s so much going on with Haiti relief that I think it would get buried among all of that. In fact, it may even invite more criticism – now they are not only offending some people by choosing to continue to sail to Labadee, but they are also spending money (that could be used for relief) on advertising or sponsorships?

      Definitely lots to think about and no easy answers for them. Thanks for weighing in with your comment (and I really appreciate the kind words about my writing!).

    • Getting in front of a TV camera is not exactly easy it requires a news outfit that wants to spend time congratulating a private business on their efforts to help, that line would get very long very quickly. Spending money to produce a commerical and then pay for stations to air it would be extremely counterproductive as we are beginning to talk about efforts that will minimally cost hundreds of thousands of dollars for people to see it if not a few million.

      I understand the sentiment and agree that a blog or social media “channels” have limited reach, but they are the most realistic channels to disclose information and in the end if people are questioning a company a PR representative or frankly anyone “listening” to the noise can point people to that location for clarification.

  3. Really great comments. Agree about the cost and possible misperception of ads/sponsorship and the difficulty of getting in front of a camera – my comments come only from a strong sensitivity about generations gaps and the challenges that poses for communication directly with target consumers.

    In terms of getting in front of the camera for congratulations, I wasn’t really seeing it like that. If the US is serious about supporting Haiti through long-term development, there will be a lot of important discussions about the difference and fine line between investment and exploitation. This is a early example that conversation, and it would seem like a thoughtful editorial team could do well with this kind of case study. And, gets the company voice heard. Would not be the first company that got free advertising through editorial commentary. If the blog leads – or is leading to that – great. The multi-channel jump is important.

    • I hear where you are coming from, but in my experience news organizations have not been interested in doing more than mentioning the goodwill of companies supporting a cause effort. Maybe I wrong but I have a hard time seeing news editors lowering their guard anytime soon.

  4. Amy,
    As you said, being honest, forthright and transparent about their actions is definitely the best move RCCL could have made. Regardless of whether it’s right or wrong, they are acknowledging the situation in Haiti and sending aid. They communicated their actions confidently and backed up their decisions. They are connected and understand the value of having the CEO actively engaged with the blog. Obviously, integrating messages through various outlets would be ideal, but having a blog and doing it well is an excellent tool for timely information/responses to the latest developments in Haiti.

    Also, I think it’s kind of refreshing that they aren’t out there waving their flag and saying “look at what we did!” I’d like to think that they would be sending the same aid whether they get recognition or not… Should a company go into an effort like this and expect to get coverage for their good deeds?

  5. So let me get this straight — if I sunbathe in Barbados instead of Haiti, that will improve the situation in Port-A-Prince? The whole argument seems ridiculous to me. Anybody angsting over enjoying a cruise while people are suffering in Haiti should sell their ticket to someone else and give the money to charity. Or perhaps they should beat their naked back with a spiked chain if they feel so guilty for having the audacity to be born in a wealthy nation. The suffering in Haiti is absolutely horrible, but will not be changed one iota by whether or not a cruise boat docks across the island. In the meantime, there’s plenty of suffering around the world every day that should cause anybody to throw their umbrella-covered mixed drink overboard in disgust. But who can live with the weight of the world on their minds all the time? Best thing to do: be generous to charities, live life as a good and ethical person and quit worrying about appearances … which is really what this thing is about.

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  7. Amy – thanks for pointing out the RCCL story and sharing details. I totally missed it. It’s an interesting balance for companies to react “appropriately” during events like this. Mostly because most people have different definitions of what’s appropriate. That puts companies in a tough spot when deciding how to help while continuing to manage a business.

    Thanks again for sharing!