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Specificity in Language Can Prevent Misunderstandings

PR crisis responseThe vultures are circling the reeling Costa Cruises brand following the wreck earlier this month. There is already plenty of analysis of what transpired so I won’t retrace those steps. But I do want to examine one seemingly minor aspect of the crisis response that offers an important lesson for crisis communicators.

In the days following the mishap, company spokespersons sought to alleviate the concerns of those who had been scheduled to go on a future cruise of the Costa Concordia. For those who no longer wanted to go on a future cruise, the company offered a full refund. For those who did want to continue with their plans for a cruise, they offered a 30 percent discount.

Somehow this ended up getting all mixed up and it created unnecessary challenges for crisis communications responders.

A report, “Costa Concordia: ‘insulting’ cruise offer to survivors,” in The Telegraph included the following quote from an unnamed Costa Cruise spokesperson:

“The company is trying to do everything they can for those passengers directly affected.

“The company is not only going to refund everybody but they will offer a 30 per cent discount on future cruises if they want to stay loyal to the company.”

Based on how the two quotes were presented, it is evident that they were probably not a single thought or back-to-back sentences when delivered, but they were published that way — creating the impression that the company was offering the victims of the accident a 30 percent discount on a future cruise. It apparently was confusing enough that the person responsible for writing the summary of the article wrote:

“The owners of the Costa Concordia are offering survivors of the disaster a 30 per cent discount off future cruises as they battle to stave off law suits expected to cost hundreds of millions of pounds.”

Needless to say, the suggestion that the victims of the cruise ship disaster were being offered a discount off a future cruise further damaged the company’s reputation and created another distraction for crisis communications responders. The story spread everywhere in a matter of hours and, despite the efforts of the crisis team to clarify that the offer was not for the victims of the disaster but for their customers who were inconvenienced by it, the vast majority of inaccurate and outraged reports have not been corrected.

One publication that has tried to correct the record is TIME. Like just about everyone else, it originally offered an account of the report from The Telegraph on January 23rd, but has since required updating not once but twice. On January 24th, TIME posted an update to the story that linked to an article in the Miami Herald, “Carnival Cruise Lines faces a hostile PR tide,” which reported:

“It’s unclear if the offer was actually floated…Costa briefly refuted the stories, then retracted the denial — the latest flashpoint in a public-relations response that has both Costa and Carnival’s Doral headquarters under fire.”

Then on January 25th, TIME posted another update to the story, which now has the headline, “Costa Cruises Denies Giving Cruise to Concordia Survivors.” The latest update includes a statement from Costa Cruises (note: the emphasis is mine):

“With reference to news reports on discounts and promotional offers, Costa Cruises feels bound to point out that the company has never offered any discount on future cruises to guests who were on board the Costa Concordia for the cruise of January 13th and involved in the tragic accident. The information published by a newspaper and reported in various news outlets is totally unfounded, as is confirmed by the English passenger who was quoted by the newspaper.”

Okay, now I think we’re all on the same page. It is a great illustration of why exactness of speech — specificity of language — is so important in a crisis. What in other circumstances would be a subtle or even humorous misunderstanding can extend the life-cycle of a crisis or even turn into a full blown crisis of its own. The lesson is to be mindful of how every word, phrase, sentence and image could be interpreted and take appropriate action to be as exact as possible in the language used to minimize the likelihood of further damage.

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Dan Keeney is the president of DPK Public Relations, which represents PULSE, The Aldridge Company, Schipul - The Web Marketing Company, Society for Heart Attack Prevention and Eradication, ERHC Energy, Saint Arnold Brewing Company, Arocha Hair Restoration among other companies. Specialties include helping organizations increase their positive visibility and establish and strengthen relationships with influencers in their markets.