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February 17, 2013

Marketing Maven: Ship happens

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Robin Itzler on a family cruise to Mexico in 1978.

Businesses large and small have marketing campaigns that highlight how they strive to satisfy their customers with outstanding products and/or services. Yet, even an award-winning marketing campaign can become an albatross when something goes utterly wrong. Whether or not it’s the company’s fault, the business should have a contingency plan for handling both the emergency and public relations.

If an unexpected situation happens, minimize the fallout by owning the message. Make sure your customers know that you are providing them with accurate and current information. Work to diffuse the situation, striving for an amiable resolution. If the media is involved, keep them informed by having a point person relaying updates and answering questions.

One recent example of a company not owning the message or managing the public relations is Carnival Cruise Lines, following the fire on its Triumph luxury liner. The 893-foot long ship became disabled 150 miles off southern Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula. With nearly 3,000 passengers and more than 1,000 crew on board, it was a story made for today’s 24/7 news cycle.

What else could you say about the fiasco except that “ship happens.”

Addressing customer problems is key

The majority of situations that upset customers fall into one of two categories:

  • Business discovers the problem
    If you become aware of the crisis ahead of your customer, either call or personally meet to offer a sincere apology for the mishap and more importantly, outline how you plan to remedy the situation. Display empathy while stressing that you appreciate their business. Most people are reasonable, especially if you’re transparent as to why the incident occurred.
  • Problem discovers your business
    This situation is similar to what occurred on Carnival’s Triumph. Many passengers said they were not told what was happening and that led them to assume the worst, especially when the ship started to tilt. The captain and his staff might not have wanted to make announcements while still conducting the investigation; a strategy hampered by our wireless world.

Closer to shore, let’s say you have an order that absolutely must arrive by “x” date. However, a blizzard in the northeast delays delivery, which is going to give your customer major headaches. If you’re the owner or CEO, become personally involved by letting the customer know that you’re aware of the situation. Explain what you are going to do to meet his expectations. What you don’t want is for your customer to learn about the delay when calling your office because the morning news said a blizzard closed major roads and flights.

You want to own the story

Last week Carnival had dozens of luxury cruise ships cruising all over the world without incident. Do you think any of the passengers on the Triumph cared? Of course not! No more than your customer might care that your business was able to satisfy all of your other customers’ needs if you were unable to satisfy their needs.

As passengers disembarked the Triumph they told reporters about their horrible ordeal on board the disabled ship, with many praising the ship’s crew and staff for doing an outstanding job in an impossible situation. Did you hear those positive comments during the five days the Triumph was being tugged to Alabama? Probably not. Most likely what you heard and read were phone calls and texts equating the on board situation with that of a third-world shanty town.

The immediate Carnival Triumph takeaway for business owners is not to let someone else own your story. You want to drive the narrative to clarify inaccuracies and answer questions before misleading comments become gospel. After all, positive press can help maintain, win back or obtain customers. It could also align future marketing campaigns.

When ship happens

You might be wondering what any of this have to do with your small business.

Before the internet and cable TV, local businesses rarely had to think about owning a message or handling public relations when a problem arose. However, in today’s 24/7 news-driven world, what happens to a local northwest Orange County company could easily become national or international news.

That’s why your business should always be prepared. Create a multi-part contingency plan. Part “A” deals directly with one-on-one customer issues. Part “B” focuses on situations that can affect your overall company.

Of course some events can never be predicted, such as a meteor exploding before hitting earth (as happened in Russia on February 15). Yet, many incidents can be anticipated, such as severe weather conditions in particular parts of the country or an earthquake in northwest Orange County.

Ship happens but I will still cruise

As a Platinum or Gold passenger on four major cruise lines, I enjoy the cruise experience. In the Marketing Maven’s opinion, you can’t find a better vacation value than a cruise. For one very reasonable price, I have a balcony cabin with amazing views. The ship stops at different ports-of-call so I don’t have to pack and unpack. Almost everything is included: scrumptious meals, dazzling entertainment, comfortable accommodations and activities galore.

The photo at the top of this column was taken in December 1978, when Larry and I, along with my parents, were about embark on our very first cruise. I’m not alone when it comes to enjoying cruise vacations. In 2012, more than 14 million people cruised. Moreover, since 1980, the cruise industry has grown by an annual rate of nearly 8 percent.

In a few weeks, the Carnival Triumph catastrophe will no longer lead be in the news. Cruise bookings will probably return to their normal pace readying for the busy summer cruising season.

It’ll take a while for the industry to win over people who have never cruised before, but the fallout from not owning the message and properly handling the public relations could result in Carnival losing business to other cruise lines. Ironically, if vacationers select “another” cruise line, it might still be Carnival as the British-American company also owns: Cunard, Holland America, P&O, Princess and Seabourn, plus a few others that primarily serve non-American citizens.

Small business owners should learn from the Carnival Triumph experience. Whether an issue affects one customer or your entire business, own the message and handle the public relations so when “ship happens,” your company can cruise to success.

Featured photo

Robin Itzler (second from left), her husband Larry, and her parents at the start of a family cruise to Mexico in 1978.

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About the Author

Robin Itzler
Robin Marlena Itzler has worked in some facet of marketing, communications or training throughout her career. Recognized for her marketing expertise, Robin is theMarketing Maven for the “Orange County Breeze,” where her columns intertwine marketing and politics. She also authors the Pet Tails feature in the monthly “Breeze” print edition and Market My Words in Pet Sitters International's "World" magazine. As a training coordinator and public speaker, Robin is involved with a variety of projects – facilitating public speaking, writing and generational differences workshops. She and her husband own Royal Care Pet Sitting, which has been serving pet owners since 1998. Their love for animals began as humane shelter volunteers where for nearly 20 years they walked and bathed rescued dogs. A former NASD licensed securities representative, Robin once served as president of the Animal Assistance League of Orange County In 2011, she founded Motivate Your Something. Along with her autobiography, Life Is an Open Seating, Robin promotes her belief that everyone has at least one challenge in life that makes getting to the starting line harder. What is Robin's something? She is legally deaf.



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