Lippe Taylor 17 Dec 2020 // 5:49PM GMT
In the interview Chris describes some innovative ways Carnival kept in touch with its legions of devoted customers when the company was unable to run cruises for three-quarters of a full year. And he advises that the best way to be ready to communicate during an emergency is to act as though every day is a crisis along with thoughts on best practices for D&I.
As CCO, Chris reports directly to Carnival Cruise Line’s President, Christine Duffy. He oversees the company’s internal and external communications, reputation and issues management and executive communications. Before joining Carnival in 2018, he worked as a senior communications executive mostly for major travel industry organizations including, among others, Sabre Corporation and Orbitz Worldwide. He has a master’s degree in public administration from the Harvard Kennedy School as well as a master’s in journalism from the University of Maryland and a bachelor of arts in journalism from Fresno State University.
Below are some key takeaways from this conversation with Chris. Feel free to listen to the whole conversation on Lippe Taylor’s DAMN GOOD BRANDS podcast below.
It’s fine to pitch yourself as a storyteller as long as your stories are relatable to finance people. In business, success is measured in financial terms and odds are good that HR, marketing and other senior executives you are answering to and working with have financial backgrounds. That means comms people have to be comfortable with the numbers as well as the words.
Sometimes making a culture more welcoming to people of different ethnicities, genders and backgrounds is as simple as changing a word. For example, after suggesting Carnival edit the description of the on-board job position for “Hostess” to something more gender neutral, Chris was told there weren’t any male hosts anyway. Of course, no one is likely to apply for a job with a title that excludes them.
Communicating effectively during a crisis has to start long before the emergency arrives. Every comms worker knows that advance planning is essential if you are to navigate troubled times successfully. Chris takes that a lot farther, arguing that every day is a crisis dress rehearsal. That means making sure you’re always grooming your brand’s reputation as assiduously as you would if you were actually in a crisis. A crisis is no time to try to fix a bad reputation, so do the work as far upstream as possible.
Difficult times can enable bonding among teams. Counter-intuitive? It sure sounds like it. But it’s less counter-intuitive when you consider that survivors of tumultuous times can develop a bond -- Chris describes it as a foxhole mentality – that gets its adhesive qualities from everyone doing unfamiliar jobs, having to rely on one another like never before – and not having to struggle against as much bureaucratic obstruction. Try to find time and perspective to observe the positive effects of this difficult time period on your teams’ dynamics as there may be major lessons there for less chaotic times.
Paul Dyer: You've said you’re contrarian about being a storyteller. What does that mean?
Chris Chiames: I speak a lot to PRSA chapters and professional groups and college students about, “How do you earn your seat at the table and how do you keep it? How do you counsel executives? How are you the honest broker within the executive team, and how do you earn and keep people's trust?”
So how do you stay in the room? You do that by adding value and understanding the issues and helping solve problems. The burden is on us to prove our work. Everybody knows that the general counsel or the CFO has to be at the table for critical issues. It's the smart companies that realize that communicators should be too.
PD: I want to pick up on a door you just opened there that reminded me of something Jon Iwata is known for saying at Page, which is that communications is the only function that gets to think about every stakeholder group equally. HR thinks about employees, marketing thinks about the consumer, but communications thinks about everybody. Which on one hand is exciting and on the other hand seems to reinforce the characterization of communications as generalists. And now you're talking about proving our worth and proving our value in the executive boardroom. So what area do you focus on? How do you focus on proving worth?
CC: You have to be a generalist and understand the whole organization and the specialists in each of those functions. And you have to get along with every function, right? I mean, we focus so much on relationships with our stakeholders, our internal clients are our stakeholders. Communications needs to be the one to bring people together and forge coalitions of ideas.
You can't be the bomb thrower. There are other kinds of functions that need to play that role. Probably every company needs to have a Rasputin to force the tough decisions. The communicators have to ask the tough questions, but we also have to bring people together, and we have to understand their needs. So it's not just the happy talk and issuing press releases but asking, “What is the issue here we're trying to solve and how can communication solve it?” And you can only do that by understanding they're part of the business and helping them get to the right place.
When you get into an organization, you're going to find out the finance team runs the whole place. Ultimately, someone with a finance background becomes head of HR, head of marketing, whatever else and so, you need to be able to understand and not run away from the numbers, or be able to fake it at least through a discussion, when it comes to those topics. So again, if you're approaching the job as a generalist, you're not going to succeed.
PD: What you're describing is the way in many large companies, it’s common practice for people on the marketing track to spend time in sales, in the field, in supply chain, in different roles and really get exposed to the whole business. It doesn't seem to be as common for communications and I think that's a great reminder of the importance of knowing the business. I love by the way, the quote that every company needs its Rasputin, but it shouldn't be the communications person.
In your very first answer there, you said that communications should be an honest broker with the executive team and then you just made a comment a few minutes ago about bringing people together and building relationships. These two things seem to lead us in the direction of inclusivity, which is a big topic of conversation in all companies today. It's something that the communications leaders are oftentimes being looked to either set the policy or at least set the tone for. So, I'm wondering if you can maybe talk a little bit about how are you addressing inclusivity, at Carnival? And how important do you anticipate it being in 2021 and beyond?
CC: We have a unique work setting in that we've got 40,000 employees from 120 countries around the world. So, we wake up every day and diversity and inclusion are just part of our DNA. Most of our onboard team members are from foreign countries. And they are quite used to working with a variety of types of people, ethnic groups, religious groups, backgrounds, and that then spills over to our guests in that everybody feels welcome. So, I think we start in a better position than other companies that have a much more homogeneous kind of workplace, in that we are just diverse by our very nature. And our employees onboard our ships literally go on vacation with our guests. People choose a cruise because they like the cruise director, they choose the cabin because they want a certain room steward.
We just are finishing a little project trying to keep our guests engaged, because we are now into our ninth month of no operations and generating no revenue, and we're trying to keep our customers enthused about us. We've got about 3,000 team members on the ships at minimal staffing right now, around the world, maintaining the ships as needed. So we started a Christmas card campaign with our guests and we've gotten probably 5,000 Christmas cards from our guests that have been mailed in that we're going to distribute to our crew onboard. That shows the power of how our customers feel about our company and most especially about our employees.
So, getting back to your original question, we always have to stay true to our inclusivity efforts, we have to look for things to make sure it's better, we can't take things for granted. We were just in the process of updating some procedures and some of the onboard job descriptions and I was trying to move things to a very generic way and the comment was, “Well, I don't know if we have any hosts at the restaurant, they are all hostesses.” And I said, "Well, of course they are. Because the job description says it's the hostess. So, a male's never going to think to apply for that job.”
That was an easy fix, but it's always looking for those kinds of things that might be left over from 20 years ago that nobody bothered to update. We have done a lot with support for our crew that's remained onboard without guests and isolated. We started some spiritual services where people of all faiths could come together. We were very careful from the beginning to make sure we didn't categorize this as anything other than a spiritual service or spiritual discussions where everyone was welcome. And I think we do that pretty effectively.
PD: Those are great examples. You talked earlier about the importance of getting to know the finances and understanding the business and you have a master's degree; you went to business school. So at any point in your career, did you expect that you were going to be in communications for a company that had no business for nine months?
CC: No, this is a brand-new experience. This is really the kind of the culmination of so many things I've learned over the course of my career. I worked through 9/11. I've worked through industrial accidents and airline accidents and other kinds of situations but as horrible as 9/11 was, there was a bottom and we knew when it was time to pivot to recovery. Not to dismiss the tragedy and the lives that were lost, but you could move forward towards the light.
This has been a situation where the bottom keeps getting lower, and the light keeps getting farther away. So it requires you to pull together all your skills, and all of your knowledge, and all of your experience, to move quickly and to adapt to whatever is ahead of us. We're lucky in the cruise business because our guests and our team members love the company, versus other kinds of industries where people are indifferent. Our guests and our employees are very loyal to the company and to the industry and so that's going to help us recover from the situation.
PD: So, when you think about those two audiences, internal and external, how do you, from a communication standpoint, prioritize the way that you're communicating for your internal versus your external audiences?
CC: I think it starts with complete transparency. I have been in this business long enough to remember when there were clear silos for communications. You could talk to Wall Street and say, "It's going to be a great year." And then you could talk to your employees and say, “It's only a two percent pay raise next year, because things are looking dicey.” And then you talk to the regulators and say, “I need help on these things that are costing us too much money.”
It was really hard to kind of blend all those messages and see where they were contradictory. Now, you can't do that. Everything's an open book, you have to be transparent. So it starts with making sure that whatever you say internally, you say externally, and vice versa.
PD: You mentioned adaptability a minute ago, and how you've had to rely on your many years of experience during this year, and you reminded me of one of my favorite quotes. I think it's usually attributed to Eisenhower and it's along the lines of: “Your plans are useless but the act of planning is invaluable.” And I have to wonder if that's even true at a time like this? When you think about the last nine months, or how you're thinking about the next nine months, what role does strategic planning play? Or is it just trying to make the most of it every day?
CC: Well, sometimes you stumble into strategy through a series of tactics. Sometimes you're just trying to survive the day or the week. But, again, I think if you have some basic guidelines and rules of the road, about how you operate, the strategy becomes more clear. So, if being transparent across all stakeholders is how you operate, that's also a strategic way of how you communicate.
Anticipating, we're going to get out in front of every story that we can. Or we're going to manage an announcement versus letting it manage us. That's a way of operating but it's also a strategy, because it also makes it clear to the team what we have to do. I had a call yesterday with a team, I laid out a few things, and everybody knew what they had to do because we have a philosophy of how we're going to operate during this time or even in regular times. There's no “What do we need to do?” kind of moment as much as everyone knowing very well what they have to do, because this is how we operate and these are the priorities.
PD: You spoke earlier about how everybody's distributed, working remotely, et cetera. So do you have any best practices, advice on how you institute culture and consistency in the operating guidelines in a remote team?
CC: My current situation is somewhat unusual in that, until I came to the company, there wasn't a centralized communications team. There were different parts of communications around the organization. That was pulled together into the center of excellence, under the chief communications officer.
So, when I came in, there were five people pretty much dedicated to media relations and handled the day-to-day incidents and events in the news, and some internal communications. But the guest communications, consumer and marketing PR, events and social were spread out across the organization. It took a while for that collection of functions to operate as a team.
When the pandemic hit and we all moved to remote work, I think there was a sense of team that maybe didn't exist two years ago, so we were lucky about that. Then we took a group of about 40 people at the time, and furloughed half of them, and unfortunately had to lay off another quarter of them so we took that 40 people and reduced it down to eight.
Then we were a team in the foxhole, right? And so, everyone was doing something a little bit different from their original job. Everyone needed each other. And that again fosters teamwork – “I'm doing something different from my normal job” also helps people grow. As hard as we were working, I think everyone's having fun, kind of cutting through the bureaucracy and getting the work done. And nobody’s said, “That's how we always did it before.” We don't have the luxury of that.
PD: It's great. And I think a lot of us are struggling with that same adaptation right now. One thing that you've touched on a couple of times was about how you started the year with goals that are obviously out the window. So when you think bigger picture about measuring the communications function, how do you think about measuring communications beyond the tactical metrics of impressions?
CC: It's somewhat anecdotal but I know instinctively who internally relies on us more than they did a year ago. They value us, and they come to us seeking advice or solution. So I measure that. It's hard to put it on a grid, but I view those things as successes.
As we continue to book guests into 2021 even with the unknown about when we're going to start operating, I like to think that there's an element of our success in conveying confidence in the business, in answering our guests’ questions, in putting out good information they understand. People need to feel confident in the business and feel like we are being honest and transparent with the information.
So I look for those ways to measure success. Just like if we were doing something to support the HR team on a recruiting effort, I'm going to look at how many more applicants we got, or how many more visits we got to the recruiting page, or whatever else because that's all part of our helping spread the word about that initiative. I'm going to look for, how does the business partner measure success and do they feel like we contributed to it? Because those are kinds of things that are probably more important than just the metrics.
PD: And I think that's a great way of looping back to what you started with which is who relies on us, and how important are we to them. And it's interesting that at this time you have turned off your advertising, since you're not really booking cruises, which means that the perceptions you're talking about among consumers, the fact that they still have brand love, that they're looking forward to coming back to booking future trips, not even knowing whether or not you're going to be operational -- that perception is communications. That is transparency. That's informing that perception right now, probably more than ever, because their marketing tactics would have been inflated any other time. So, it's an interesting position you find yourself in.
CC: It really is, like we were talking about earlier. Starting with those assets of grand, wild industry love, guest loyalty is key here. But those things aren't accidental. You have to continue to build on that and that's based on the history.
When I talk to college students about crisis communications, I'd say, “Look, every day is crisis dress rehearsal. If you enter a crisis, with a bad reputation, you're stuck.” You have to approach every day as if you're going to need all these stakeholders you're interacting with. You have to have a good reputation with the media before a situation. You have to make sure your employees believe you. You have to make sure regulators believe you.
Every day, you have to practice what you would normally do in a crisis -- not in a manic way because there's some people who thrive on crisis -- but just, “How do I keep building and burnishing that reputation by doing good work every day, having good messages, writing well, communicating well?” So that when you need to dip into that reservoir of goodwill, it's there.
PD: And that's a great way ending our conversation here, Chris, with this idea of communications’ role in building the reservoir of goodwill, both internally and externally. Let me just say, thank you. I think this has been incredibly insightful. I'm sure you're at a really, really difficult moment in your career with everything that you've been dealing with recently, and we appreciate you taking your time to share these insights. It's been great hearing from you, and thank you.
CC: Great. I enjoyed it. I appreciate the invitation and I look forward to how your listeners think about the podcast.