When a malfunction caused flooding on a Carnival Cruise ship during a Caribbean voyage, a passenger's video went viral on Facebook. The company's response was a fantastic lesson in how to respond to a social media crisis with emotional intelligence. 

The trouble began Thursday evening, when a water line broke on the Carnival Dream, flooding one of the ship's decks. According to the company, the water line was part of the ship's sprinkler system in case of fire. At no point was the ship or its passengers in danger.

Nonetheless, the flooding appeared distressingly familiar to anyone who ever saw the film Titanic--it looked very much like the ship itself was taking on water and perhaps about to sink. So it's quite understandable that a passenger named Marla DeAnn Haase posted video of the flooding on Facebook along with the following text: 

"Um....FB folks.....this is a rare moment of internet connection ....we are flooding on a cruise, we heard the violins and the silverware all came crashing down. What in the world....say a prayer for us all."

This was drawn from a Miami Herald article since the original post has been taken down. But not before it had been shared more than 10,000 times and the video of the flooding corridor had been watched more than 1.3 million times. 

Although I've never worked at a cruise company, I'm pretty sure that having a passenger post video of part of the ship underwater with text that reads "say a prayer for us all" is high on the list of things you never want to have happen. Even so, the company's response to a potential PR nightmare was an absolutely perfect blend of decisive action and emotional intelligence.

To begin with, the crew immediately sprang into action to rectify the problem as quickly as possible. The water line broke around 6 pm and by midnight, crew members had replaced carpeting where needed, dried out carpeting that was wet but not damaged, and cleaned up and restored the affected staterooms so that people could sleep in them. All of that is the least you could expect from any decently-run travel operation in a situation like this. The rest of Carnival's response, though, was very, very smart:

1. They were completely transparent.

When you're running a cruise ship, it's pretty easy to control passengers' communication with the outside world. After Haase posted her video of the flooding, you'd think the ship's crew or the company might have been tempted to do that. They also could have prevented passengers from video-recording the flood or the cleanup as many companies likely would have done, claiming "privacy concerns." Instead, Carnival crew welcomed Haase when she videoed the informal bucket brigade of uniformed staff scooping up water, and many of them smiled for the camera. The cruise line also released full details of the accident in its public statement.

2. It took decisive action swiftly to make up for the damage.

By the day after the incident, Carnival Cruise Line had already decided to 1) Continue the cruise as scheduled since the mess had been cleaned up and the ship was functioning normally; 2) Give all affected passengers a full refund for the cruise and a 50 percent discount toward their next cruise; 3) Offer all affected passengers the opportunity to leave the ship at the next port--Cozumel, according to the ship's itinerary--and be flown home. Of about 100 passengers affected by the incident, only two chose to cut their trip short.

Think about that for a moment. A full refund plus 50 percent discount plus airline tickets for roughly 100 passengers is a significant expense. Also, the threat of a lawsuit always hangs over an incident like this one, and decisions like these are typically made in careful consultation with a team of attorneys. Yet Carnival was able to announce its offers in less than 24 hours.

3. It did not minimize the incident.

Carnival could be forgiven for suggesting that the flooding was a relatively minor occurrence. No one was endangered, fewer than 100 passengers out of a total of 3,500 were directly affected, and the situation was resolved in less than six hours. The company noted in its statement to the press that most passengers were unaware the flood had happened and only found out because Haase's Facebook post got some media attention and their friends and relatives back home started asking about it.

But Carnival resisted any impulse to treat the flood as no big deal. Instead, it said this: "We never want our guests to experience anything other than a perfect vacation, so we sincerely regret that we inconvenienced nearly 100 guests." Then it went on to detail its compensation to affected passengers, backing up its statement of regret with cold, hard cash.

4. It praised its customers.

Carnival was justifiably proud of the quick response by its crew members. But the company said this in its statement: "Both our crew and our guests have been amazing during this voyage." 

That theme--that the passengers were as deserving of praise as the crew for their response to the flooding--was repeated in several Carnival communications, including its Facebook post about the flood. This showed great emotional intelligence. By praising customers for their positive, helpful responses, the company was raising the likelihood that those positive responses would continue or even increase. Customers who were making an effort to be good sports about the inconvenience got the message that their upbeat attitude was noticed and appreciated. And those who were inclined to be grumpy got some peer pressure to be more cheerful, and thus more in line with their fellow passengers. 

Carnival ended its press statement with this sentence: "Needless to say, the tremendous positive attitude of our guests and crew is proof of why we are America's favorite cruise line." You can't really turn a frightening flood aboard a cruise ship into a good thing to have happened. But Carnival's response comes as close as you can get.

Published on: May 6, 2018