Damage limited by slick handling of media

Arguments in favour of cross-Channel ferry travel do not come much less compelling than Stena Challenger's 24-hour paddle off Bleriot beach.

Increasing competition from rival operators such as Eurotunnel and, in the aftermath of the Estonia disaster, doubts about safety mean the incident could not have come at a worse time for the ferry company.

However, the public relations industry view is that, in terms of damage limitation, Stena Sealink performed with consummate skill. The contrast with Cunard's handling of its QE2 "cruise from hell" last Christmas - when the company allowed the ship to set sail on a transatlantic cruise before a re-fit had been completed - could not have been more complete.

According to Trevor Morris, managing director of the PR firm Quentin Bell Organisation, Stena Sealink were "upfront and open" about their problems. "They showed concern for their passengers and were honest. No more than that can they do. They clearly spared no expense in making their customers as comfortable as possible. They flew in a vet to look after a horse, or was it a chicken? Either way, it was a nice story and the media picked up on it."

Stena also provided free food and drink, as well as handing out mobile phones for passengers to call relatives. On arrival at Calais, the company offered the 172 passengers full refunds, free return trips, a night's free hotel accommodation and the prospect of compensation. Mr Morris added: "In three months' time, when people hear the name Stena Sealink, they will have a positive reaction rather than thinking that's the company that ran aground."

The happy outcome was greatly helped by the fact that no one was hurt. But it was also the result of slick media management.

Jim Hannah, Stena's director of communications, said that moments after the boat ran aground, an emergency plan swung into action. A chain of command was immediately established, with a list of who in the media should be contacted and in what order. Chris Laming, Mr Hannah's deputy, set up a media relations centre in Calais, while Mr Hannah and another of his team manned a support unit at Stena's HQ in Ashford providing back- up information and research.

The key difference with Cunard's handling of its crisis was the access journalists enjoyed and the ease with which they could tap into passenger woe. In contrast to the QE2 fiasco, journalists were unable to call the Stena Challenger's passengers direct. The regular means for making shore- to-ship calls, either by a BT freephone number or through the coastguard, were blocked at Stena's request.

Mr Hannah insisted there was "nothing Machiavellian" about the control of information from on-board. "It was really to make the rescue as efficient as possible. The ship was in a critical situation - all lines of communication had to be left open for the emergency services."

In helping the public forget this episode, Stena Sealink can also thank some of its rival operators. A spokeswoman for Eurotunnel said yesterday that the company would not be making any advertising capital out of the stranded passengers' beach holiday.