They may have been stranded aboard a busted cruise ship for five days with little food, broken sewage systems and no heat or air conditioning, but at least they'll get to keep the bathrobe.
On Friday morning, as more than 3,000 tired and dirty customers finally disembarked from the stranded cruise ship Triumph, @CarnivalCruise tweeted, "Of course the bathrobes for the Carnival Triumph are complimentary."
It was a remarkably tone-deaf finish to a week-long public relations fiasco that began Sunday night when an engine fire crippled the Caribbean-bound ship and set it adrift in the Gulf of Mexico. Nonstop news coverage and social media chatter brought the public vivid images of the fetid conditions aboard the Triumph. Reports from passengers included details about overflowing toilets, hours-long waits to get food and flooded rooms during the five days they were stranded at sea.
Even as Carnival deployed a host of communications strategies to do damage control as news from the Triumph spread, its efforts did more harm than good, according to public relations and travel experts reached by The Huffington Post.
"I can't think of a worse way they could have handled it, whether as a maritime issue or as a PR issue," said Carolyn Spencer Brown, editor-in-chief of CruiseCritic.com, a leading consumer resource website for travel cruises.
Carnival Cruise did not immediately respond to request for comment from The Huffington Post. Carnival Cruise Lines CEO Gerry Cahill on Friday told CNN, "We pride ourselves in providing our guests with a great vacation experience, and clearly we failed in this particular case."
The timeline for the company's crisis communication plan appeared flawed from the start. Two days after the engine fire took place and conditions aboard the ship deteriorating for passengers, Carnival's Chairman Micky Arison was seen at a Miami Heat basketball game rather than responding to the snowballing disaster. (He is a part owner of the team.)
"The moment it happens, don't wait two seconds to get the CEO out," said Chuck Mardiks, a managing director at MMGY Global, a travel public relations firm that has represented cruise companies in the past. "They should have helicoptered the CEO to the situation."
Carnival also was slow to communicate with the press or provide detailed information to passengers about the status of the breakdown and the rescue, raising questions about how well the company and industry at large are prepared to deal with ship breakdowns at sea -- both operationally, and from a communications perspective.
The cruise industry experts suggested budget-trimming -- or a reluctance to spend huge amounts of money to deal with a crisis at the outset -- was at fault, as Carnival opted for cheaper ways to handle the crisis, such as social media. The company used its Twitter account to post frequent updates about the progress of the Triumph's return to port. However, any social media missteps were quickly seized on both by frustrated passengers and the public, who watched the disaster unfurl in real time on television and the Internet.
As compensation for their trouble, Carnival promised to return Triumph passengers' fares -- ranging from $800 to several thousand dollars per person-- plus $500 and a credit for another cruise, along with those complimentary on-board bathrobes. The very same garments had already become iconic ware for passengers, who used them as impromptu white boards to complain about the lack of food and unsanitary conditions aboard the ship.
The largest cruise line company in the world, Carnival had a revenue of $15.8 billion in 2011. It owns 10 different cruise line brands, including Princess and Cunard. The Triumph mess comes just a little more than a year after another Carnival-owned ship, the Costa Concordia, sank off the coast of Italy, killing 32 passengers. The fallout from the recent mess could affect the entire cruise industry, as customers looking for a pleasure ride increasingly feel wary of taking their chances at sea.
"It's starting to build up that cruising is not safe," CruiseCritic.com's Brown said. "Everybody out there who has ever thought about taking a cruise is having second thoughts. It's a train wreck. There has to be an impact."
Mardiks, the travel PR expert, said that the increasing popularity of cruises and the frequency of cruise-related accidents has simply lowered passenger expectations. "The industry will rebound because unfortunately it's commonplace," he said. "People assume this could happen and hope it won't."
Ernest DelBuono, a senior vice president at Levick Strategic Communications, a crisis management firm with clients in the cruise industry said the damage would be shorter-term. "As for the impact on the cruise line, passengers were safe. Horrible conditions of course, but they were safe and systems on the ship worked like they were supposed to," he said.