In early 2011, Norwegian Cruise Line, having just announced its IPO in late October of the preceding year, was looking for an unconventional way of introducing itself and its offbeat notions of mass travel to a national TV audience and a much wider public.
Its CEO, Kevin Sheehan, was given a chance to appear on the popular CBS reality show “Undercover Boss.” Norwegian was taking a real risk—its PR department had no say in the final televised show.
The idea was to generate bookings in the crucial WAVE season, increase engagement with three key audiences (employees, current cruise guests, and non-cruisers), and position Norwegian as a forward-looking, innovative, hungry competitor in the eyes of potential investors.
The calculated gamble paid off. CEO Sheehan proved to be a natural both on screen and off: humble, intelligent, at ease with people, blessed with an inborn ability to make fun of himself, eager to learn from new experiences. Sheehan was the perfect “Undercover Boss.” This is why Norwegian’s PR department won top honors in the Best Branding or Positioning category of PR Daily’s 2012 Media Relations Awards.
Norwegian’s PR staff leveraged the CBS reality show’s popularity to achieve a stunningly effective mix of traditional and social media PR:
- They pitched well-written feature stories to the hometown papers of Norwegian employees who appeared on the TV show.
- They made Kevin Sheehan, who was extraordinarily cooperative, available to the press to discuss his bumbling and the lessons he learned during his two weeks on the ships. Sheehan showed his mastery of understatement and self-satire over and over again.
- They set up a microsite on Norwegian’s main website that featured stories, interviews with cruise ship employees, and guest feedback about the TV show.
- They created a sweepstakes in which guests and social media followers could win a cruise on the two ships featured on the program.
The good PR fallout kept raining down for months:
- More than 35 million people viewed the episode’s two airings on CBS alone.
- In the next 18 months, the episode aired several more times, including reruns on TLC and the Oprah Winfrey Network.
- Norwegian’s bookings rose by 53 percent the week after the airing.
- Traffic to Norwegian’s website more than doubled.
- Norwegian received thousands of emails and letters about the show from fans, many of whom had not sailed with Norwegian before.
- Sheehan changed his management style, visiting his company’s 11 ships regularly and talking constantly about the great work Norwegian’s ship crews do.
Other profound internal changes at Norwegian came out of Sheehan’s appearance on “Undercover Boss”:
- Sheehan now looks for ways to end the isolation of Norwegian’s executive headquarters from its ships. He is thinking about beginning a program in which mainland headquarters executives will visit ships often and stay longer on their visits—to learn.
- Sheehan made it easier, quicker, and cheaper for cruise ship workers to stay in constant touch with their families, increasing bandwidth and reducing phone rates.
- He has introduced many other new initiatives based on feedback he receives from crews during his visits.
- Sheehan promoted cruise ship employees he met on the show. He rewarded other standouts with family cruises. He helped employees raise money for worthy causes. He eliminated crew chores that didn’t make business sense.
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