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The travel PR crisis: An inside view of Cunard's PR department at the start of lockdown

I wonder how many of us will have that, ‘I remember where I was when I first heard about’ moment, in relation to the government announcing that we were going into lockdown as result of Covid-19? 

The emotional, seemingly vivid memory of where you were when something big happens such as 9/11 is what's known as a flashbulb memory. I had this moment and remember exactly where I was and what I was doing when I first heard about the outbreak and also when I watched the government’s announcement, live on TV, that the country was going into lockdown. I knew, both times, that it was not good news for travel and especially the cruise industry that I worked in.

Life in constant crisis comms mode

The pandemic and lockdown forced in-house travel PR teams far beyond their comfort zones. Used to being in offices, surrounded by colleagues from other departments, to provide a co-ordinated response to a crisis, we found ourselves working from home and with crisis communications at the top of our daily agendas for months. At times it felt like there was no end in sight. It was long days and nights. It was utterly relentless as we battled to turn the tide of negativity that engulfed the cruise industry. It was back-to-back Zoom calls, writing and then rewriting statements, updating Q&As as fast as we possibly could. It was trying to navigate the legal complexities of communicating about cancelled voyages, refunds and credit notes.

Leading a smaller team

We made it through the first stage of the crisis, but only a few weeks into lockdown team members were furloughed and I was down to a team of just two, including myself. We put paid to any plans made at the start of the year to bring on a consumer PR agency and asked our social media agency to step down until later in the year. We quickly upskilled and I probably learnt more in those few months about the mechanics and capabilities of our social media platforms and tools, than I had done in my last four years at Cunard.

Scrapping communications strategies

With smaller teams across marketing, little-to-no budget and a world now unrecognisable compared with how it was only a few months ago, it was clear that we were going to have to rip up the 2020 marketing and communications strategy and start over. We instinctively knew it was now about: keeping people informed; showing empathy and providing some much-needed travel inspiration and hope.

Content-first approach

With our new strategy and plan in place, it became an audience-led, content first approach as we worked to deliver a series of ‘how to’ videos. We repurposed existing video content and relied heavily on UGC.

We became agile and flexible, maximising every story opportunity. We worked quickly and reached out to our partners and past on board speakers asking for their help to produce and collaborate on content.

Ironically, during the first month of lockdown we delivered our most engaged piece of content ever. The ‘How to bake the perfect Cunard scone’ video with Cunard’s executive chef, in addition to sharing the prized recipe, was a huge hit. Within days, thousands of our guests, across the world, were posting and sharing images of their own home-baked Cunard scones. It was a much-needed moment of positivity given everything else going on.

Final thoughts

The impact of Covid-19 on the travel industry and especially cruise, has been devastating. A billion-dollar industry has been brought to its knees and thousands who work directly and indirectly for the industry have lost their jobs.

I’m not sure when Cunard will sail with guests again. However, what I do know is that cruise  firms have a loyal guest base and I suspect many will return to cruising as quickly as they can. 

The industry also benefits from a dedicated and passionate media. Travel editors and writers quickly rallied to create awareness and offer support. 

I won’t see the return of Cunard to sailing as the leader of the PR team. I’ve now departed, setting up at the start of this month as an independent PR consultant. I do however hope that I will have an opportunity in the future to sail with Cunard as a guest. Rachel Lloyd will set sail again.

Written by Rachel Lloyd, independent PR consultant

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