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iSpy #8: Power Outage on Cruise Ship Makes for 4,000+ Unhappy Passengers

November 18, 2010

Crisis: Carnival cruise ship loses power while at sea, leaving the nearly 4,000 people onboard without air conditioning, hot water, working toilets and fun.

Principle:  “Conduct public relations as if the whole company depends on it.” 

            A fire onboard of a Carnival cruise ship led to a complete power outage which left it stranded off the coast of Mexico.  The fire, which took place in one of the engine rooms, knocked out the ship’s air conditioning, hot water, telephone service, and toilet function.  Running only on emergency auxiliary power, the ship, known as the Carnival Splendor, was left adrift 55 miles off the northern Baja California coast for several hours until the Coast Guard could come tow it back to port.         

          The guests were told to congregate on the ships upper deck and were not allowed to return to their rooms until many hours after the initial outage. They were given bottled water and cold food, provisions that the U.S. Navy airlifted onto the ship along with other basic supplies. 

          Carnival pledged to reimburse the Splendor’s guests for all of their travel arrangements and provide them with a free cruise of equal value in the future.  The cruise line also canceled all of the Splendor’s scheduled trips until Jan. 16th, 2011, so that the ship can receive all of the necessary repairs and safety inspections.  Guests that were booked during that time will receive a full refund of their cruise fare and air transportation costs, along with a 25 percent discount on a future cruise.  

          Alright Carnival, that’s great that you want to reimburse the Splendor’s unlucky passengers and offer them another free cruise.  But I know that if I was onboard that ship during the power outage and I had to be stuck onboard with 4,000 smelly, hungry and angry people, a free cruise would NOT cut it!  It’s hard to make time for a week-long family vacation when you have to juggle work, school, sports teams or other extracurricular schedules.  Carnival needs to really do its best to make amends with the thousands of unhappy guests whose vacation plans were ruined. 

          The company issued a press release and is working to apologize to each individual guest, but I still have a feeling that these efforts won’t cut it.  Whatever it does end up doing, Carnival needs to realize that it needs to conduct public relations as if the whole company depends on it, because for the next few months, Carnival Cruise Lines will be the LAST company passengers will want to book their vacations with.

Question for the class: What kind of PR tactics would you recommend Carnival use in order to rebuild its relationship with the Splendor’s unhappy passengers?


I-Spy #7: Charlie Sheen—Is He Worth the Risk?

October 29, 2010

Crisis: Charlie Sheen is being accused of everything from drug addiction to domestic violence, and this is threatening his sponsors and employer’s abilities to keep him employed.

Principle:Realize a company’s true character is expressed by its people.”

            Charlie Sheen, star of CBS’s hit sitcom, Two and a Half Men, can be summed up in two words: train wreck.  He’s been arrested time and time again over the past few years for charges ranging from drug possession to domestic violence and assault (he held a knife to the throat of his now ex-wife, Brooke Mueller).  He almost died in 1998 from overdosing on cocaine, and has been in and out of rehab ever since.  Sheen is three-times divorced, has five children with three different women, and has a dating history that includes everything from actresses to porn stars. Needless to say, Charlie isn’t exactly a real straight shooter.

            Most recently, Sheen was arrested at a NYC hotel after police found him ranting about a stolen wallet in a naked drunken rage.  And according to several celebrity gossip websites, officers discovered a large quantity of cocaine, a prostitute locked in a bathroom and nearly $7,000 worth of damaged furniture that had been destroyed by Sheen in his unruly state.  All of this reportedly happened as his ex-wife and two children were sleeping just a few feet away in the room across the hall.

            Charlie Sheen’s reckless behavior is clearly a liability for CBS.  And according to Arthur Page, a company’s true character is expressed by its people.  Should CBS employ actors like Charlie who have such consistently irresponsible and uncontrollable personalities?  Although it may not enjoy associating with bad boy Sheen, I’m sure the $3.4 million generated from each 30 minute episode of Two and a Half Men makes it easy for CBS to overlook any negative PR their golden boy may drum up while off the set.  But will all of Sheen’s crazy antics catch up to him one day?  Where should CBS draw the line?  From the looks of it, I think that CBS has decided that it values net profit over favorable brand recognition and positive public relationships.  Too bad.  But hey, that’s show biz!

Question for the Class:  Should CBS assume any responsibility for Sheen’s actions? In other   words, if Sheen crosses the line, does CBS have the responsibility to discipline or perhaps cut ties with their sitcom star?

I-Spy #6: Brett Favre Back in the Dog House

October 22, 2010

Crisis:  NFL Hall-of-famer Brett Favre accused of sending X-rated photos and messages to NY Jets sideline reporter, Jenn Sterger.  The NFL is currently investigating Favre’s case and, if found guilty, Favre could face suspension and a sexual harassment lawsuit.                       

Principle:Tell the truth.”

          Vikings quarterback Brett Favre was recently accused of sending racy text messages, voice mails and photos to the cell phone of NY Jets sideline reporter, Jenn Sterger.  And in classic Tiger Woods style, the rumors spread like wildfire all over the media.  Favre, a married father of two and grandfather of one, allegedly sent Sterger the inappropriate messages during his brief 2008 season with the Jets.  Several weeks after the claims were made, Favre reportedly admitted to NFL officials that he did in fact leave voicemail messages on Sterger’s phone, but he denied sending photos.

            And this isn’t Brett’s first PR-crisis rodeo.  In the mid ‘90s Favre admitted to being addicted to Vicodin and traded in his football season for a two-month stay in rehab.  Several years later, the quarterback confessed that he had become an alcoholic and, once again, had to hang up his helmet and sober up in rehab. In 2007, his wife, Deanna Favre, wrote a book revealing her struggles with her husband’s behavior and the damage it had on their marriage.  Needless to say, Favre lost his sterling reputation as the all-American dad that he began his career with.

          In my opinion, Favre may want switch sports for a moment and consider a concept found in America’s other favorite pastime: “three strikes—you’re out!”  With a track record like his, it’s going to be pretty difficult to maintain the trust from his sponsors, the NFL and his fans.  History tells us that the QB has a problem with self-control, so why should we believe him again when he tells us that he’s going to clean up his act once and for all? 

           Rather than coming clean, confronting the accusations head on and putting it behind him, Favre continues to say very little about the Steger scandal.  This is a PR mistake because by not taking control of the story and setting the facts straight, he is leaving room for even more media speculation which, in turn, leads to increased coverage on the matter. 

           Favre needs to take a time out and consider the winning PR strategies recently implemented by Woods, Vick and Jeeter.  All of these all-star athletes were caught red-handed, yet managed to get back in the game after manning up and telling the truth.  If Favre wants to retire without the reputation of being a heavy-drinking womanizing drug-addict, then he needs to cut the bologna, listen to Mr. Page and tell the truth.

Question for the Class:  Do you think the “three-strike” policy applies to a person’s credibility    when making a public apology?  Or will the public always respond positively when the truth comes out?

I-Spy# 5: Gibson vs. Grigorieva

October 15, 2010


Crisis: Angry, threatening voice messages left by actor Mel Gibson for now ex-wife Oksana Grigorieva leaked into the media and are destroying Gibson’s public image.

 PrincipleTell the truth  

            It’s been several months now since Mel Gibson’s angry voicemails to ex-girlfriend, Oxana Grigorievas, hit TMZ. 

Here is one of the recordings of Mel’s angry rants.  (WARNING: HIGHLY EXPLICIT/OFFENSIVE CONTENT)

            Since the surfacing of Mel’s feisty voicemails, speculations about Gibson and Oksana’s tattered relationship have populated newsreels, tabloids and blogs.  With Mel’s career on the line and Oksana’s respectability at stake, the two stars have a significant PR crisis on their hands.   Although they are both vying to salvage or improve their relationships with fans and stakeholders, Gibson and Grigorieva approached their respective PR crises in very different ways.

            As soon as the media picked up the story, Mel immediately froze all career moves and basically went into hiding.  He made very few comments regarding the situation and stayed as far away as possible from the paparazzi.  He did, however, gave full cooperation with authorities in their investigation of his alleged domestic abuse case.

             The problem with Mel’s PR strategy is that he is not making an effort to get ahead of the story by telling the truth.  By not providing any statements or commentary, Mel is leaving plenty of room for speculation in the media.  He needs to go ahead and tell the truth so that he can have some control over the information that is being picked up and shared in the media.

              Oksana, on the other hand, is talking TOO much.  By appearing on every possible talk show, radio show and interview, Grigorieva is changing her image from a victim to an attention addict.  In addition, she keeps hiring and firing lawyers and has started blaming all of her PR missteps on a former bodyguard.  In other words, she is taking every possible opportunity to divert blame and negative attention to others.   Oksana needs to settle down and get a handle on the message that she wants to share with her public. 

            Although they both have very different messages they are trying to get across to their publics, the former love birds would both greatly benefit by just calming down and telling the truth!

Question for the Class:  Is there ever a time where the crisis is so extreme that a person or company should really go into hiding and avoid any kind of media contact? Or is telling the truth always the best strategy?   

I-Spy #4: Lincoln Center Presents: Bed Bugs– Live!

October 14, 2010

Crisis:  Bed bugs found in the dressing rooms of NYC’s Lincoln Center. 

Principle(s): “Remain calm, patient and good-humored” and “Tell the truth.”

Finding good seats and a parking spot aren’t the only things you have to worry about when planning your next trip to the Lincoln Center.  A recent discovery in the dressing rooms of the prestigious NYC landmark yielded another stressor we can add to the list: bed bugs. 

A recent email from the theater’s managing director, Mark Heiser, to the New York Observer confirmed an isolated outbreak of bedbugs in the dressing rooms at the David H. Koch Theater. The official announcement regarding the bed bugs was made the morning after the New York City Ballet hosted its celeb-packed black-tie fall gala at the theater, which was attended by stars such as Sarah Jessica Parker, Natalie Portman and Jake Gyllenhaal. 

In his email to the Observer, Heiser wrote that he encouraged the public to “please understand that this is an epidemic,” and that “any signs of bedbug activity should not be considered a sign of an untidy house.”  He also noted that bug-sniffing dogs had been brought in to locate the tiny pests and exterminators had been called to deal with the vermin accordingly. 

Aside from Heiser’s email to the Observer, there has been no official statement made on behalf of the Lincoln Center regarding the bed bug incident.

This PR crisis serves as a good example for two Page principles:remain calm, patient and good-humored” and “tell the truth.”  Rather than waiting for the media to discover the story via theater employee gossip or muckraking efforts, the Lincoln Center got ahead of the story and came clean from the beginning.  In his correspondence with the media, Heiser defused the impending public disgust by explaining that the outbreak was far away from any public areas, the issue was quickly dealt with and by also reminding them that his opera house wasn’t the only place in NYC affected by the bed bug epidemic. 

Although some may believe that by not issuing an official news release the theater was trying to merely sweep the issue under the rug, I would argue that it was a wise decision.  By simply emailing a prominent media source, the Lincoln Theater was able to get the information out without making it a big deal.  Had they sent out a news release documenting every detail of the incident, they would have drawn unwanted attention to themselves by giving the media more information to latch onto. 

By telling the truth and remaining calm, the Lincoln Center sailed through its crisis without any long-lasting damage to its image and public relations.

Question for the Class: Did the Lincoln Center do enough to inform the public on their bed bug  outbreak?  Should they have issued a news release? Why or why not?

I-Spy #3: Facebook CEO’s Image Threatened by New Movie

October 1, 2010

Crisis:  A new movie titled, The Social Network, portrays Facebook founder and CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, as a pompous, backstabbing businessman who climbed to the top via the deceitful manipulation of others.  The movie poses a significant threat to Facebook’s relationship with its users and business partners.

Principle:  “A company is best represented by its people.”

The Page Principle, a company is best represented by its people, was demonstrated by social media giant, Facebook, on Oprah’s Sept. 25th episode.  Mark Zukerberg, the C.E.O. of Facebook appeared on the daytime talk show to present a $100 million check to the New Jersey school systems.

Response: Zuckerberg announced just a few hours before the movie premiered that he would be donating more than $100 million to failing Newark schools. Some have speculated that he is doing so to save his reputation with the film about him coming out, while others have said that the timing is suspect, but that it appears to be an act of generosity, and not an act to save his own tale. 

         By getting out into the public eye, he is giving the 500 million Facebook users (and the world at large) a different perspective of the greedy, vicious Zuckberg depicted in the upcoming film.  This is important because he is not only reaching FB users through this action, he is also reaching the millions of parents who control their children’s computer usage (and FB usage). 

Criticisms: Not so subtle to present $100 mil only a few hours before the movie premier…smart because news picked up on the story, but still it’s an obvious PR stunt.  And after viewers see the billions of dollars Zuckerberg made/is making with Facebook in the movie, $100 mil will seem like just a drop in the bucket.

Question for the Class: Even though Oprah stated several times during the segment that Zuckerberg initially planned on making the donation anonymously, do you think this announcement was perhaps TOO strategically made in its relation to the premier of the new movie?  Or was the timing appropriate?  

i-Spy # 2: Steve Jobs’ Rude Email with Student

September 24, 2010

Crisis:  A transcript of a not-so-tactful email correspondence between Apple CEO Steve Jobs and a college student recently made its way online and has been brewing up resentment towards Jobs from college students and Apple customers.

Principle: Listen to the customer” and “a company’s true character is expressed by its people.”

If asked how to become a successful business, PR pioneer Arthur W. Page would advise you to listen to the customer and realize that a company’s true character is expressed by its people.  Steve Jobs, on the other hand, might tell you simply to leave him alone.

Jobs, the C.E.O. of Apple, made the mistake of ticking off outspoken Long Island University student journalist, Chelsea Isaacs, during an email exchange regarding Apple’s PR department. 

Isaacs was frustrated that Apple’s PR department had failed to reply to her several requests for a quote, and emailed Jobs her on a whim.  The senior journalist student wanted a quote for her newspaper story about the prospect of LIU students receiving iPads to help their academic performance. 

Isaacs email read: 

“Mr. Jobs, I humbly ask why Apple is so wonderfully attentive to the needs of students, whether it be with the latest, greatest invention or the company’s helpful customer service line, and yet, ironically, the Media Relations Department fails to answer any of my questions which are, as I have repeatedly told them, essential to my academic performance.”


Job’s response:

“Our goals do not include helping you get a good grade. Sorry.”

Isaac’s response:

“I never said that your goal should be to “help me get a good grade.” Rather, I politely asked why your media relations team does not respond to emails, which consequently, decreases my chances of getting a good grade. But, forget about my individual situation; what about common courtesy, in general —- if you get a message from a client or customer, as an employee, isn’t it your job to return the call? That’s what I always thought. But I guess that’s not one of your goals.”

 Job’s Second Response:

“Nope. We have over 300 million users and we can’t respond to their requests unless they involve a problem of some kind. Sorry.”

Isaac’s Third Response:

You’re absolutely right, and I do meet your criteria for being a customer who deserves a response:

1. I AM one of your 300 million users.
2. I DO have a problem; I need answers that only Apple Media Relations can answer.

Now, can they kindly respond to my request (my polite and friendly voice can be heard in the first 5 or 10 messages in their inbox). Please, I am on deadline.

Job’s Final Response: “Please leave us alone.”

            Okay, Steve Jobs, we get it.  You’re the head of a multi-billion dollar company, the 137th richest man in the world, and you have better things to do than cater to the needs of a whining student journalist bad-mouthing your PR department.  But did you really need to reply with such a blatant disregard for customer satisfaction?  Isaac’s news story was about the effectiveness of iPads as a learning tool, and the story could have helped Apple sell hundreds of its products to an entire student body.  He could have just as easily not responded to the email, but instead Jobs chose to reply in an extremely pompous manner, showing his complete indifference for his customer.

            Mr. Jobs’ sassy email correspondence violated at least two Page Principles and may have cost Apple thousands of dollars in potential sales.  If Jobs had replied to Isaac’s email with thoughtful consideration, this story could have helped Apple’s relationship with college students around the world, demonstrating that even the CEO himself cares about what the little guy has to say.  But the fact that Jobs chose to reply in such an unprofessional manner is what landed this story on the’s Daily Dog page as a PR “woof!”

            So Steve if you’re reading this: if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.

Question to the Class: PR managers often muzzle their athletes, movie stars or political figures, but should corporate PR departments stifle or actively regulate its company’s executives’ direct communication with clients?