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A Falling Tide

The weekend has a habit of swallowing certain stories – by Monday, the headlines have moved on. Nevertheless, yesterday, as I made my way to Fast Company’s Manhattan offices, I was surprised that New York’s sensational, scandal-happy tabloids weren’t jumping all over the comments of one Bob Dickenson.

The weekend has a habit of swallowing certain stories – by Monday, the headlines have moved on. Nevertheless, yesterday, as I made my way to Fast Company’s Manhattan offices, I was surprised that New York’s sensational, scandal-happy tabloids weren’t jumping all over the comments of one Bob Dickenson.

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Dickenson is the CEO of Carnival Cruise Lines. Last week, referring to the mysterious disappearance (and apparent murder) of a 26-year-old honeymooner on a Royal Caribbean cruise ship, Dickenson called the case “a non-event,” claiming, “It’s more entertainment than anything else. The facts of the case, the story of the husband and wife, the bride and the groom, when — and — I mean, it’s just so absolutely bizarre.”

The family of the missing man, George Smith, immediately called for Carnival to dismiss the CEO

Dickenson’s apology couldn’t have come quickly enough: “My comments,” he said, “were within a larger discussion on cruise industry issues and were not meant to minimize the tragedy of George Smith’s disappearance.”

Problem is, they’re empty words. “Larger discussion” aside, Dickenson was talking about George Smith’s disappearance. Not only did he call it “entertainment,” but he went on to say, “It’s annoying that we’re talking about it. We’re giving this thing legs… that’s the kind of stuff that bothers me.”

No doubt this is the kind of stuff that would bother the CEO of a cruise line. I once had a friend who worked at Disney’s Magic Kingdom, in Orlando, Florida. She recalled a saying among the employees about injured customers: “Nobody dies in the Magic.” In the rare case that a customer was crushed by a ride, she said, he or she wouldn’t be declared dead until the body was outside park limits. Cruise ships have a similarly delicate image to maintain. Bad press – be it a rogue wave, the Norwalk virus or a vanished passenger – doesn’t sell tickets.

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But neither do callous remarks. In an industry that markets fantasy and sunny escape, Dickenson’s comments weren’t just a rude awakening, they were a call to action for critics of the cruise industry around the world. Following Dickenson’s remarks, the media has renewed calls for an answer to Smith’s disappearance (the FBI is investigating the case). Moreover, the Smith family’s claims – that cruise operators use lies and cover-ups to downplay crime on their ships – are now attracting further international attention.

Dickenson should stop worrying about the press and start worrying about his shareholders; in the wake of his remarks, Carnival’s stock has slipped. Assuming he keeps his job, he might also lend a hand with the damage-control effort at Royal Caribbean. Following his comments, Royal Caribbean’s stock is down, too.

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