Ship hits the fan

What happened to P&O's flagship could have been a PR disaster but, oddly, wasn't
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The Independent Online

We were looking forward to the journalistic equivalent of a turkey shoot. Hundreds of passengers were due to disembark from P&O's flagship Aurora, their dreams of cruising the world in five-star luxury reduced to the chill of a January day in Southampton due to an engine problem. After 12 days on board and a series of false dawns, they were told there would be no cruise. They had shelled out thousands of pounds and cleared their schedules for the privilege of sailing the English Channel. All we had to do was soak up the bile.

We were looking forward to the journalistic equivalent of a turkey shoot. Hundreds of passengers were due to disembark from P&O's flagship Aurora, their dreams of cruising the world in five-star luxury reduced to the chill of a January day in Southampton due to an engine problem. After 12 days on board and a series of false dawns, they were told there would be no cruise. They had shelled out thousands of pounds and cleared their schedules for the privilege of sailing the English Channel. All we had to do was soak up the bile.

Unfortunately those on board had failed to read the script. As they came ashore the passengers refused to complain. Words like "wonderful time" and "treated like royalty" kept cropping up. The journalists started to grow edgy. "I've found only one bloke that's angry and he refuses to give his name," said one national newspaper reporter. Passengers even began taking hacks aside, lecturing them on the munificence of their hosts.

The next day's headlines were startlingly benign. "Biggest booze cruise ... ever!" said The Sun, in reference to the free alcohol that had been available as the ship underwent repairs. "Ultimate booze cruise went nowhere in style," mused The Guardian. The Daily Telegraph, which had covered the story most assiduously, was also in conciliatory mood. Its editorial declared it "The Voyage of their lives" concluding "we suspect that, once the Aurora is declared seaworthy again, there will be plenty of customers queuing up for the next world cruise". It was a far cry from previous days when the newspapers were sounding off in terms of the "jinxed ship", "fiasco" and "up-ship creek".

In PR terms Aurora was a ticking time bomb: a multimillion-pound ship moored off a south coast port in easy reach of the media, packed with wealthy, older, articulate customers - just the sort that read quality newspapers.

News that the P&O's most lucrative cruise was under threat began to filter into the PR team two weeks earlier. Aurora was running late from the Caribbean with engine trouble. According to Philip Price, head of brand marketing at P&O for only four months, they were immediately prepared to delay the departure. Meetings were convened at the company's headquarters at Richmond House in Southampton. By Friday 7 January - two days before it was due to sail - it became clear that there was going to be at least 24 hours' delay. It was necessary to telephone all 1,752 passengers and inform them. Everyone spent the weekend in the office.

But the engineering solution would require sea trials to test the repair - further delaying the departure.

"Round-the-world cruise is a very emotive term and we were expecting media interest," said Mr Price, 40, who has long experience in managing luxury car brands, most recently Rolls-Royce. Statements were prepared, a technical briefing drawn up and a question and answer sheet devised for both journalists and passengers.

On the following Monday, as news of the delay leaked out, the local media began to arrive dockside. BBC South was there, as was the local newspaper the Daily Echo, and so was the Press Association and Solent News.

"We were expecting the south coast media but on Tuesday, Sky was there and the story went national," said Price. "But we were dealing with a delay that could be easily managed. We had very happy passengers but the media was trying to turn it into something it wasn't."

Sea trials in the English Channel were by now being held every other day. Unfair comparisons were being drawn between the top-price round-the-world ticket of £42,000 (most cost a fraction of that) and the £9.40 ticket to the Isle of Wight by the local ferry operator Red Funnel. "The newspapers were talking about 'laps of the Isle of Wight' which of course was not physically possible in a ship this size," added Price.

For 11 days P&O bosses held meetings every four hours, the last one at 11pm. The three-strong PR team worked flat out. "It was a case of phones to both ears. It became crisis management but we kept the dialogue open between the directors, the passengers and the media. We felt we were in control the whole time," said Price.

In an act of PR glasnost, P&O facilitated TV crews to film dockside, provided rolling updates and even offered tea and coffee to reporters at the terminal. According to one reporter that covered the story, P&O was being "disarmingly frank". Crucially, this policy managed to keep the journalists and the passengers apart with reporters happy to go to the company media team for comments.

Two key decisions were then taken. The first by David Dingle, P&O managing director, who decided to throw open the bar. The second was by Neal Martin, director of hotel services and entertainment, to "augment" the existing cabaret by hiring Jimmy Tarbuck, Elaine Paige and Paul Daniels - dubbed the "comedy cavalry" by the Daily Mail, a phrase the company despised. Price concedes there was a danger that bringing in old stars could reinforce negative stereotypes about cruising. In this case, however, he insists it was "heartland entertainment" for winter world cruisers. "But the free alcohol and the performers kept the story light-hearted. The thing was, it didn't degenerate into headlines like 'get me off this ship'." They were more than happy to offer a running tally on the amount of booze consumed - keeping the story light.

P&O brought in Brunswick on the last day to handle the announcement to the financial markets that the cruise was cancelled. In the event, shares in Carnival (P&O's parent company) fell just five cents from their pre-crisis value of $31. Meanwhile, P&O PRs were on hand to answer reporters' questions as the passengers disembarked. Asked what was the greatest mistake during the 12-day crisis, Price is momentarily stuck for an answer, before replying: "That's one for the engineers."

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