Op-Ed: What it Will Take for the Cruise Industry to Survive

Cruise ships in Port Canaveral (file photo)

Published Jun 4, 2020 1:42 PM by Thomas P. Illes

In the course of the current corona crisis, advice and theories on how companies and industries should practice successful crisis, reputation and communication management are shooting up like mushrooms.

For the cruise industry, it seems appropriate to attach even greater importance to this topic than it has already been forced to do in recent weeks. 

Above all, the industry should not only use the current period of forced shutdown to communicate about new COVID-19 hygiene/health measures and protocols. While this is certainly of upmost importance in order to restore customer confidence it shouldn't be neglected now to focus simultaneously even more also on environmentally friendly innovations or stringent concepts of sustainability.

Even if such - by all means cost-intensive - efforts may seem like a contradiction in the current economic survival mode, the industry will not be able to avoid responding to even more critical and pressing questions and deliver convincing answers in the course of its comeback in those areas that have repeatedly brought the industry considerable criticism in recent years.

Long before the coronavirus this criticism became increasingly loud and aggressive - not only of the cruise industry, but of shipping in general. This development was fueled in large parts also by an often largely unfounded but pronounced negative media coverage. 

And there are even more and more voices, including those of prominent influencers and opinion leaders around the globe, who are proclaiming the end of the cruise industry, indeed of tourism as such, as we have known it until now, or who are publicly longing for it with quite a loud roar.

This is all the more relevant since the highly important target group of potential first-time cruisers are much easier to influence negatively through bad press than experienced cruisers. In view of its efforts to get back on its feet, the industry should therefore make a determined effort to gain more goodwill in the public perception again.

Even though it is the much-scolded cruise and ferry industry of all that was and is still acting in many respects as a positive pioneer in shipping the industry has so far not yet succeeded in drawing enough public attention to this fact. This was also a dominant theme at last year's Seatrade Cruise Europe in Hamburg. The credo there: "This public image does not reflect who we are.”

One should and must, however, acknowledge that certain points of criticism are by no means simply made up out of thin air and that also parts of the industry have not always behaved in an exemplary manner in the past. Even if some mishaps were isolated cases and the safety and environmental record of the industry is in the majority of cases as it should be, such incidents did a lot of damage to the industry as a whole. The public does not distinguish between individual brands but still perceives cruises as a single entity.

After such incidents, many representatives of the industry were initially far too hesitant for too long, seeking reflexively a defensive stance or wanting to act in silence, stay rather stubborn and primarily backing off. Executives and PR managers often showed difficulties to realize that such an attitude would over and over again provide the media welcome invitations for negative press directly on a silver tray and fuel the criticism and polemics even more. 

Of course, even in corona times, it will not be possible to conjure up the "egg-laying, milk-bearing woolly sow"-zero emission super eco drive out of the hat overnight. But the time has never been so right to communicate more proactively about the efforts and weighty partial successes of the industry in this and many other sustainability-relevant areas. 

CLIA and its members are doing a lot to address the issues mentioned. They know well what the issues are and are working tirelessly to find a way to get back to safe operations.
It is gratifying and gives cause for hope that the industry, especially through CLIA and the IMO, is now increasingly opening up to a positive paradigm shift, communicating more cooperatively and openly indeed and, compared to previous years, has finally achieved to demonstrate a much greater willingness to engage in constructive dialogue combined with a collaborative approach. 

In my view, based on many years of experience in advising companies and industries in crisis communication and reputation management - among others also major cruise lines, shipyards and the marine supplies industry - the present crisis can be seen as a great opportunity as it might force the whole industry and all stakeholders hard to do something that they maybe should have done much earlier: 

  • listening even more carefully to the critics
  • taking criticism more seriously 
  • including elements of criticism in the communication strategy instead of reflexively negating them and/or primarily entering and persisting into a mode of defense and justification
  • increased use of elements of surprise such as demonstrating understanding, respect, even gratitude for the criticism expressed and, above all, courage for alleged weakness by admitting openly, in addition to the compiled catalog of killer counterarguments, that solutions are still not yet found for every challenge everywhere - but that hard work at it is in progress
  • entering into a dialogue with the "enemies", inviting even more of the sharpest critics for looks behind the scenes to terminals and ships and showing how professionally measures are implemented (yes, there is ISPS, and yet, there is the need to open up shipping more to the public - the IMO, after all, is calling to improve the image of shipping since decades!)
  • pursuing a proactive communication policy, characterized by more tangible empathy, sensitivity to criticism, perhaps a little more modesty and transparency. 

Thus, together with joint efforts to further improve the environmental and sustainability balance of the industry, I am absolutely convinced: Yes, the industry will be back indeed - stronger than ever and with a much-improved public perception!

Thomas P. Illes is a maritime communication advisor, shipping & cruise analyst, keynote speaker and university lecturer.

The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.