Tunis Attack: How Important Is the Crisis Response From MSC and Costa?

Agnes Huff, crisis communications expert

MSC Cruises and Costa Cruises are dealing with the most difficult guest situation imaginable as they assist relatives, companions and friends of those killed or injured in the tragic terrorist incident in Tunis, Tunisia earlier this week. Clearly for the two lines, that must be their top priority. 

Still, from an industry and brand perspective, how the lines simultaneously deal with the tragedy publicly -- through their communications and their approach to the media, investigators, employees, crew members and guests  -- and whether those communications have a sense of "transparency" are critical to the cruise industry as a whole.

Agents say that high-profile cruise industry events of the past few years, including Carnival Triumph’s power loss in the Caribbean with difficult onboard conditions afterward, and, more tragically, Costa Concordia’s accident, causing the deaths of 32 people, have impacted the entire industry. Most notably, these types of issues are problematic for getting first-time cruisers onboard. 

This situation is certainly a bit different in that it occurred on land while guests were taking shore excursions. Still, it's a high-profile situation, so Travel Agent asked Agnes Huff, PhD, president and CEO Agnes Huff Communications Group, a Los Angeles-based crisis communications and accident expert, for her initial "take" on the situation. 

Huff specializes in reputation management, brand building and corporate communications for high-profile industries faced with high-stakes communication challenges. She has personally handled responses for several major U.S. airline accidents and assisted Fortune 500 companies with crisis planning, crisis response and handling of families during difficult post-event situations. She's written the Singapore Airlines crisis plan, for example. 

With the situation in Tunisia, “the cruise lines whose passengers were affected must act quickly, decisively and with a high degree of compassion,” emphasizes Huff. “What was a holiday and vacation for many has tragically become a nightmare instilled with fear.”

She continues: “In the immediate aftermath, open and honest communication is essential to brief the passengers and reassure them that the cruise line takes their safety and well-being seriously.”

She says that hopefully, each cruise line has been able to implement their current crisis management and communications plan to deal with the situation.

That certainly seems to be the case, as Travel Agent has been receiving regular communications from both lines in this regard -- in some cases, multiple statements throughout the day. Care teams have been sent to Tunis to assist passengers and family members. See our related story

In addition, Pierfrancesco Vago, the chairman of MSC Cruises, has personally gone to Tunis to assist with the situation. That's critical in "showing the flag" and providing corporate leadership from the top. Knowing that the top person within the company cares can be comforting to those injured as well as to families or friends of those injured or killed. 

Terrorism is a difficult situation that many companies and countries are dealing with globally, as evidenced by recent attacks in Paris and Copenhagen. “Despite all precautions being taken by cruise lines and travelers, terrorist attacks can and do happen with increasing frequency,” Huff said.

That said, she noted one plus about the cruise industry. “Cruise lines, because of their flexibility with selecting and visiting certain ports, are in a better position than the local tourist hotels in Tunisia to weather the terrorist incident," Huff emphasizes.

Moving forward, she says it's critical all cruise lines continue to closely monitor conditions and security in all port cities at which they call, and that all “cruise lines need to be flexible in making adjustments to protect their passengers.” Costa today cancelled upcoming Tunis port calls for multiple ships and is working on a revised schedule. 

Industry Response 

The terrorist attack at the National Bardo Museum inTunis, the capital city of Tunisia, killed and injured tourists visiting the attraction the morning of Wednesday, March 18. Among those killed were passengers from Costa Fascinosa and MSC Splendida, who were on shore excursions at the time. 

"First, we are all outraged that innocent tourists were apparently targeted in the attacks in Tunisia, and we are saddened by their loss," said John Lovell, president of Travel Leaders Franchise Group, Leisure Group and Vacation.com. "Terrorism remains relatively rare in popular destinations, thankfully. But the reality is that in today’s world, terrorism knows no boundaries as recent attacks in such popular – and predominantly safe – destinations as Paris, Ottawa and Sydney have all too tragically shown."
"For anyone who may be at all apprehensive about taking a cruise, we can assure them that cruise lines have an excellent track record of swiftly responding to wide-ranging incidents, whether it’s been repositioning cruise ships to avoid the paths of hurricanes or changing ports of call when civil unrest has flared," Lovell said. "We expect that they’ll respond accordingly in this case as well."

TravelAgentCentral.com will continue to update agents on the situation in Tunisia.