The Public Relations Strategist

Safety First: Lessons From the Costa Concordia Disaster

June 29, 2012

On Jan. 13, 2012, the Italian luxury cruise ship Costa Concordia, carrying more than 4,200 members on board, ran aground and partially capsized off the coast of Giglio, Italy, killing 32 passengers.

Directly following Concordia’s sinking, rumors spread about the cruise liner’s captain abandoning ship before issuing proper evacuation orders. Italian police detained Capt. Francesco Schettino, 51, of Naples, Italy, for questioning. Schettino told authorities that he did not abandon the ship but tripped off the cruise liner and ended up in one of the lifeboats.

Onboard chaos captured by passengers’ cell phone videos showed that crewmembers were unprepared for an emergency evacuation. “Waiters instructed diners to remain seated even as the ship began listing,” said Alessandra Grasso, a passenger from Sicily. “Once I boarded the lifeboat, the helmsman appeared ill-equipped to bring everyone to safety. He kept banging into the ship, unable to steer the lifeboat to the shore, until a passenger shoved him aside and took the lead.”

Though the Costa Concordia came with state-of-the-art communications and navigation systems, Bloomberg Buisnessweek noted that passenger reports strongly suggested that the crew did not comply with the most basic international safety standards. According to the Tampa Bay Times, 600 of Concordia’s passengers weren’t scheduled to receive their mandatory briefing on security procedures until the day after the accident. Better communication efforts by the captain and his crew might have saved the 32 lives.

The lessons of the Costa Concordia disaster demonstrate that human error and arrogance can trump even the most advanced technology. Better planning, preparation and implementation of safety communications will ensure better outcomes during crisis situations.

Working together

Whether an organization is engaged in protecting the general public, its own workforce, its facilities and surrounding communities, or other stakeholders, there are three levels of communications that will help ensure safety during a crisis situation:

  1. Strategic communications set the stage for safety and inform stakeholders and audiences that the organization’s leadership is committed to safety.
  2. Process communications integrate safety into the daily activities of all employees and stakeholders, including the public.
  3. Situational communications allow employees to work together safely as they face various situations and respond to possible incidents, such as the grounding of the Costa Concordia.

In order for these three levels of communications to work effectively, organizations must implement and carry them out among each of their publics. Proclaiming “safety is our number-one priority” without having the proper safety communications plan implemented can prove to be fatal in many ways. For Costa Cruises, it is almost guaranteed that it has lost some degree of trust among its key audiences.

Senior management that shows a more concerted effort in training and motivating employees through frequent safety performance reviews will increase trust with stakeholders, the workforce and publics. Organizations should also allocate more time and other resources to practice safety. If Costa Concordia employees received more rigorous safety training, then they would have been better prepared for the ship’s crisis.

Defining safety communications

Though safety communications and crisis communications are related, they are not the same thing. The difference is that crisis communications includes non-safety-related threats to organizations and people: Some examples would include legal crises, such as a CEO’s arrest; financial crises, such as bankruptcy; and reputational crises, such as reports about racial or gender discrimination.

“The business of crisis communications is concerned with the transferring of information to significant [people] to either help avoid or prevent a crisis, recover from a crisis, and maintain or enhance reputation,” says Kathleen Fearn-Banks, author of “Crisis Communications: A Casebook Approach.”

Many of the crisis communications stories about the Costa Concordia focused on reputation management issues. Reports questioned what Costa Cruises’ parent company, Carnival Corporation & PLC, and the cruise line industry can do to restore public confidence.

A few days following the incident, Carnival Corp. announced a comprehensive audit and review of all safety and emergency response procedures. In February, Cruise Lines International Association responded to the disaster by announcing that in the future, safety drills and briefings for passengers will take place before ships leave port.

Communicating a culture of safety

Robert Sumwalt, a member of the National Transportation Safety Board, says that “safety culture” is doing the right thing, even when no one is watching. 

Safety experts James Roughton and Nathan Crutchfield argue that effective safety cultures should require organizations to do the following:

  • Define safety roles and responsibilities for all levels of the organization — for example, ensuring that safety is a line management function.
  • Align management and supervisors by establishing a shared vision of safety goals.
  • Sustain the safety culture despite changes in workplace requirements, management and employee responsibilities, job methods and administrative guidelines.

In short, safety awareness, assessment, management and response require effective communications.

Understanding the role of communicators

Safety communications has often been the province of safety experts, engineers and technicians who manage and operate complex systems — often, lawyers have played a role too.

However, the lessons of the Costa Concordia strongly suggest that communication professionals should also be involved in the safety culture.

Communication professionals should reach out to safety officials within their organizations and provide collaboration and support while recognizing that the technical team has unique expertise, training and experience.

Communication practitioners can begin offering safety communications audits to ensure message consistency and effective delivery for all three types of safety communications that are in place. They can assist in designing training materials, posters, websites and other safety communications vehicles. And, where feasible, communicators should consider undergoing safety training of their own.

The safety communications lessons learned from the Costa Concordia disaster came at a great cost.

Ben Zingman, Ph.D.
Ben Zingman, Ph.D., is the CEO of Ben Zingman Communications and an adjunct professor in the Strategic Public Relations Program of the George Washington University’s Graduate School of Political Management.


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