Sailing into a public relations disaster

Cunard's handling of the embarrassing events surrounding the QE2's latest cruise will enter public relations handbooks as a classic example of how not to deal with such a situation.

As passengers continued to complain yesterday about the chaotic conditions aboard while workmen finished refitting the ship, Cunard was again reacting to events rather than controlling them.

What was happening aboard only became clear when the Independent and another national newspaper telephoned the ship on Monday and spoke to angry passengers. Cunard left David Steene, who had set up a passengers' action group, standing outside its officesfor more than three hours.

Mr Steene, from Elstree, Hertfordshire, was understandably angry at having spent £19,000 on the cruise for himself and his family only to be told that British contractors had not finished work on the cabins. Some public rooms, were also unfinished. They

were among 500 passengers unable to board. Cunard's response was to lock the doors of its headquarters in Pall Mall, central London, leaving Mr Steene and other passengers outside to talk to the press. While Mr Steene gave interviews and posed for photographs, company employees peered furtively through the windows. By the time they let him in the damage was done.

The public relations business is astonished at the way Cunard has handled events. "They have lost control of the agenda and the agenda is now with the media and the disgruntled passengers," Quentin Bell, chairman of the Public Relations Consultants Association, said.

Roger Haywood, of the Institute of Public Relations, agreed: "It was pretty obvious that people were going to come to the office. What you don't do is leave them outside talking to a third party before they talk to you. The fundamental rule is that you get them inside and treat them with courtesy."

Mr Haywood, who recently wrote a book called Managing Your Reputation, said the QE2 fiasco would provide a textbook example of how not to handle such a situation. "People will forgive you for the original mistake, but they will not forgive you for the handling of it afterwards," he said. He and Mr Bell believe that public relations departments of large companies must have the ear of their chief executives. Mr Bell said that hotlines should have been set up for passengers and press conferences held for the media.

Michael Gallagher of Cunard said: "We were extremely busy on Monday. We had 200 people other than Mr Steene to deal with. We have stayed ahead of the game but no matter what we do at the moment we are going to get criticised for it."