rainbow on board a cruise ship in the Atlantic Ocean


30th March 2020

I think we would all agree that we are in unprecedented times, and moreover, that the pace of change at this moment is something we haven’t seen in our lifetimes.

I find myself temporarily stranded on a cruise ship in the Pacific Ocean, caught up in the midst of this evolving crisis, as countries have one by one closed their borders and denied us entry.

My ‘holiday’ (which is how this began) should have ended more than two weeks ago, but instead we were denied the right to disembark in San Antonio, Chile, and have subsequently become something of a political ‘pawn’ in an unfolding drama.

Of course, one always learns so much as a ‘passenger’ in these situations, both about the way we communicate and the resulting impact on the audience. The communication onboard our ship, the Celebrity Eclipse, has been excellent. They haven’t always got it ‘right first time’, but it has nonetheless presented me with a great case study in crisis communication, so I thought I’d share the evolving principles:

1. The voice from above (from the bridge)
Good leadership is essential in times of crisis, but the availability and connectedness of leadership to its audience is central to the building of trust and, ultimately to success.

Captain Leo has tackled the delivery of all news – good, bad, and importantly “no news” – with regular updates, initially hourly. This has gained him much respect among crew and passengers alike, and he has positioned himself as the key source of reliable information. This has been invaluable. We have, in addition, had a personal video from the CEO to our stateroom TVs and our emails. Nice touch, but Leo is the man in charge on a day-to-day basis and we need to hear from him.

2. Fast response to feedback
As the crisis developed it became apparent that all feedback was being dealt with, with appropriate urgency. For example, once we knew this wasn’t going to end quickly, passengers on prescription medication began to feedback their panic about their supply. The following morning an announcement was made for everyone needing medication to complete a hastily produced form, so that they could collate information and begin to address the problem.

3. Easy ‘gives’
During a period of change, any ‘gives’ feel like huge victories. They motivate and get the audience ‘onside’. I’ve seen this often in pension scheme change communications when a ‘cost neutral’ amend to a proposal can stem anxiety (and union action sometimes). In our case, things felt so much better when we were given free wi-fi and a free bar!

4. Channel optimisation
Making the most of all the communication channels available is an effective way to engage your audience. In our case, a mix of face to face (specifically the voice from above), written information delivered to the rooms, backed up by video and quickly produced online forms to gather passenger information quickly, were both effective and drove community spirit – as passengers helped each other with technology and shared information.

5. All in the same boat (literally)
The growing sense of community is an emerging theme in our current crisis, at home, and out here on the ocean. The fact that we’re all ‘in it together’, that the experience impacts everyone, drives a spirit of co-operation that is often lacking when rapid change comes knocking. Shared problem solving drives both ownership and understanding. Long may we remember that!

As for my situation? Well, the plan is to disembark in San Diego. We need to remain optimistic that all will be resolved. As Captain Leo’s grandfather once said (apparently), “don’t worry about the days of rain, the sun always comes out in the end”.

Karen Partridge

Chief Consulting Officer – AHC, a Gallagher Company

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