Before boarding the Carnival Triumph to face his disgusted, frightened and spitting-mad customers last night, Carnival CEO Gerry Cahill delivered a three-minute statement to the assembled news media.
And while he eventually said some of the right things, it took him a minute and 46 seconds to say what he should have said right at the start. He should have apologized to his customers right from the get-go.
Cahill started by talking about the “tremendous effort” that went into getting the ship back to shore. He thanked the U.S. Coast Guard, U.S. Customs and Border Protection, U.S. Public Health Service, the City of Mobile and the Port of Mobile. He thanked Carnival employees on land and onboard. He said how nice it was that the guests had recognized the efforts of the crew in online posts and in news media interviews.
That’s all fine – it’s very important to thank employees and partners in a crisis situation – but it wasn’t until the 1:46 point that he finally said: “I’d like to reiterate the apology I made earlier. I know the conditions onboard were very poor. I know it was very difficult. And I want to apologize again for subjecting our guests to that.”
I’m speculating here, but I get the impression that Cahill thought he had already apologized to his customers over the long days before the ship finally made it to Mobile, and that’s why he didn’t start with an apology this time. But this was his most important news media appearance up to that point, and delaying the apology by first talking about Carnival employees made him come off as a bit self-serving.
His on-camera performance wasn’t terrific, either. He spent most of his time with his eyes cast downward, which made him look a little unsure of himself. Better to keep the chin up and make eye contact with the reporters on hand.
Listen, the guy was in a very tough spot. It’s hard to say you’re sorry. It’s particularly hard for a proud CEO to say he’s sorry. It’s particularly hard for a proud CEO to say he’s sorry over and over again. But rule number one of crisis communications is to express concern for your customers first.