Cruise Company Handles Crisis by the Book

By Sklarewitz, Norman | Public Relations Journal, May 1991 | Go to article overview

Cruise Company Handles Crisis by the Book


Sklarewitz, Norman, Public Relations Journal


Crisis management preparedness means planning to deal with the unexpected before it occurs. Public relations practitioners who plan ahead hope they never have to put their plan into action. At Los angeles-based Crystal Cruises, the public relations director and the crisis management team managed a crisis by the book -- and found it worked.

At the center of the incident was the Crystal Harmony, a $200 million luxury liner put into service in June 1990. The 49,000-ton vessel is operated by Crystal Cruises, a wholly owned subsidiary of NYK Line, Inc. of Tokyo. The company markets primarily to the North American upscale leisure market.

On Monday, Oct. 1 at 7:15 p.m. Pacific time, Darlene Papalini, director, public relations, received a call at home. The caller was Douglas Duncan, senior vice president, sales. He told her that Captain Reidulf Maalen, commanding the Crystal Harmony, had just called by radio phone. He reported that a fire had broken out in the ship's auxiliary engine room at 7:32 p.m. Central time (5:32 p.m. Pacific time -- about an hour and a half earlier). No deaths or injuries occurred, but the ship was dead in the water, with only minimal emergency power. On board were 920 guests and 540 crew members. No other details were available.

Maalen had promised to call back as soon as he had more to report. In the meantime, all ship-to-shore communications were cut off so the telephone and fax were open for emergency communication.

Manual was prepared

Steps for handling the situation were all carefully detailed in the company's "Crisis Communications Manual," a 61-page document in a ring binder. It is divided into five categories, classified by type of emergency. The categories are: Trade -- an emergency such as a strike or a delayed sailing; Business Page -- publication of material considered to be bad press, such as unfavorable financial information, or a sale of the company; Shipboard -- a natural catastrophe such as a hurricane, or an accident such as the ship running aground; Media -- a bomb threat, fire or threat of the ship sinking; and International -- a terrorist or other attack. Steps for managing each emergency vary.

A group of company executives were designated to be members of a Crisis Management Team (CMT). Each executive received two copies of the manual; one to be kept in the office, and one at home.

Top team members absent

The fire, which was confined to the engine room and caused no deaths, was classified as a shipboard crisis. Papalini knew the first step was to advise the CMT members. At the top of the list was the president of Crystal Cruises, Arthur A. Rodney, designated as chief company spokesman. Next came the five executive vice president: Arthur Sbarsky, senior vice president, marketing -- team coordinator and alterante company spokesperson; Douglas E. Duncan, senior vice president, sales -- alternate spokesman; Captain Ingar Engan, senior vice president, marine operations -- on-site coordinator; Gregg Michel, senior vice president, finance -- financial/legal liaison backup; and Misuhito Takahashi, senior vice president -- Japanese media liaison.

It was apparent to Papalini that the entire CMT would be needed. However, some of the team members were absent. The Crystal Harmony was in a normal sailing season pattern, so several members of the company's top management were traveling.

Rodney and Michel were somewhere over the Pacific Ocean en route to meetings with NYK in Tokyo. Sbarsky had been in Miami for meetings and was flying home. Captain Engan was out for the evening.

Corporate policy required at least one of the key CMT members to be in town at all times. This put Duncan in charge with Papalini as his primary backup. These backup designations were stated in the "Crisis Management Team Responsibilities" section of the crisis management plan.

Duncan and Papalini left messages for Engan and Sbarsky. …

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