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Going Viral: A Lesson in Crisis Communications from Aboard the #Westerdam

Date: April 16, 2020
Christina Kerby discusses crisis communications and her experience aboard the Westerdam.
Going Viral: A Lesson in Crisis Communications from Aboard the #Westerdam
Christina Kerby
Christina Kerby helps organizations and executives strengthen market position, enhance and protect reputation, and engage employees. Specializing in creative approaches to storytelling across internal, external and social channels, she believes in data driven decision making, reducing inefficiencies and fostering a fun and empowering environment for my team. Christina has expertise in media relations, executive communications, brand strategy, change management, crisis communication, and organizational culture building.

Introduction: The following SHSMD podcast is a production of

Bill Klaproth: On this edition of the SHSMD podcast. First let me ask you this. How would you like to be stuck at sea on a cruise ship for almost two weeks with nowhere to port as the world speculates that someone on your cruise has the Coronavirus? Yeah, kind of stressful. Well, it happened to our guest, Christina Kerby aboard the Westerdam cruise ship and she is going to share her story and lessons in crisis communication. That and more coming up as this podcast ship sales right now. This is the SHSMD Podcast, Rapid Insights where healthcare strategy professionals in planning, business development, marketing, communications and public relations. I'm your host Bill Klaproth. In this episode we talk crisis communications with Christina Kerby, Crisis Communicator, Storyteller and Writer. In her role, Christina helps organizations and executives strengthen market position, enhance and protect reputation, and engage employees and she is on the board of the Medical Clown Project. Now, Christina was aboard the Holland America Westerdam cruise ship that was quarantined for over two weeks in Vietnam. Even though no passenger tested positive for the Coronavirus. So we're going to talk to Christina as she shares her story and her take on crisis communications aboard the Westerdam. Christina, welcome to the SHSMD Podcast. And as you know, we start every episode of the podcast with Rapid Insights. One quick tip someone can use to make their marketing communications better today. Christina, give us your rapid insight.

Christina Kerby: You know, I would say it's important to look for opportunities to showcase brightness and humanity. Even in the face of crisis, you can really build credibility by being human and authentic.

Host: I really liked that rapid insight, Christina, build credibility by being human and authentic. We should all remember that. So I guess the first question for you is pretty straightforward. So how about that cruise? It must have been pretty crazy.

Christina Kerby: It was. And it's crazy for me to think now that I literally rode the first wave of this epidemic as Coronavirus was coming to the attention of the world it was still what was considered a low risk when I made the decision to take a cruise with my mom. It was it was a vacation that we had been planning for a year. She invited me to cruise with her for two weeks through Asia. She's an avid traveler. She invited my brother on the first half of the cruise and then I was to join them in Hong Kong. My brother flew home from there and then I got on the more exciting half of the cruise, so to speak.

Host: Yeah, the fun. And I like how you put that. So your cruise ship left from Hong Kong and was unable to port as fears of the Coronavirus grew, although no passenger tested positive for the Coronavirus. And after 10 days at seas, you are finally able to disembark in Cambodia. But in the meantime, you became the spokesperson of sorts for the cruise ship. Tell us about that.

Christina Kerby: That's correct. Yes. And so my ship, the Westerdam was literally on the heels of the Diamond Princess, which as you know, is the ship that was quarantined in Yokohama, Japan because it did have known cases of Coronavirus. And so I think that ship was driving a lot of the negative and scary stories, and public conversation that began to come out around the same time. So this was in early February. I departed on February 1st and I think news broke about the Diamond Princess about three or four days later. So naturally it made sense that the public attention would turn to other cruise ships in Asia. And, and speculation really did begin to grow. I began hearing from friends and family back home who were worried about me and my mom. And there were certainly rumblings on board the ship as well as, as passengers began to speculate about whether there might actually be cases of the virus on board our ship as well.

Host: Did you ever hear of or see any sick people on the crew?

Christina Kerby: No, I'm at no point, at least that I was aware where their sick passengers on our ship. There was a rumor going around after we were denied entrance into the Philippines, which was supposed to be our first port. There was a rumor going around that maybe there were sick people on board. But I learned later that this was just speculation. And you know, there was a sense of, a little bit of panic. I turned to social media because I wanted to see what the public conversation was around our ship. And I saw that there were some passengers tweeting or posting on Facebook about their fears. And I thought, well, you know, this could go one of two ways. We could all start to panic or I could start to shine some light on what really life is like onboard the ship, which for the majority of people it was a pretty normal cruise except for the fact that we were denied entry into country after country as our voyage continued.

Host: So then you started tweeting, right? You kind of became the unofficial spokesperson of sorts for the cruise ship. So tell us, you started tweeting what life was really like on the ship and what happened from there?

Christina Kerby: Well, I decided to use humor as my hook. I've always I have a little bit of a background in theater and improvisation and so humor comes naturally to me. It's my default. And I also knew that from my work with an organization in California called the Medical Clown Project, that humor can be really effective at diffusing stressful situations and lightening the mood. So I decided that I would take this approach of showcasing using sort of situational observational comedy, what life really looked like, and blend those posts with facts that we were getting from the captain because Holland America wasn't able to communicate as quickly with you know, with the external world as maybe I was on Twitter, as I was getting these real time updates. So I started posting things like what I observed at the salad bar or you know, really mundane, funny posts. And that started to get the attention of reporters.

Host: So did they start you on Twitter then?

Christina Kerby: They did, yeah. So I got I got a DM from a reporter at Bloomberg. I think they were the first ones to reach out and they asked if they could use my tweets in an article. They were writing about the ship and I said yes. But I was also hesitant to provide comment on the record because to be honest, I didn't know what was going on outside the ship. I only knew my experience as a passenger. And so I didn't want to speculate. And I didn't want to say anything that could potentially interfere with our ability to find deport, knowing that this was a growing diplomatic crisis. So I said, yes, you can use my tweets, but I'm not going to go on the record right now. After Bloomberg published the article with my tweets, that's when everything blew up and I was getting hundreds and hundreds of messages from reporters all over the world. And you know, I dipped my toe in the water and I asked Holland America via Twitter if I could start responding to some of these and I was surprised and happy when they did agree to let me to help facilitate a few interviews from me from onboard the ships. So they were great. I think they could tell that my intention was to do no harm. And so they helped me with some internet connections so that I could talk to some reporters on Skype. And then that's when Anderson Cooper called and I just dropped dead from excitement. I know it was the highlight of my personal and professional life. I'll say that.

Host: Yeah, I bet. All right, so before we get to Anderson Cooper, let me ask you this. You wrote an article in LinkedIn that said you felt that not only your tweeting helped inform the outside world, but it played a purpose internally as well, as your tweets were informing the staff and the crew of the ship. So important to remember about the internal nature of this type of communication as well? Is that right?

Christina Kerby: Yes. Yeah. And again, the principles of healthcare clowning and reducing stress. I was approached by some crew members actually who saw my tweets and thanked me. It was incredibly moving for me because their families all over the world were worried about them. The crew, you know, some 800 people from all over the world have limited communication with their families and their families were hearing the same scary rumors that the rest of the world were. And so the crew members were able to show my tweets to their families back home and say, look, people are sitting by the pool. They're laughing. They're enjoying life on board the ship. Nobody's sick. This isn't a scary situation for us. And so I feel like I succeeded in that way by lightening the mood for the crew, and helping reduce some of that, that worry and fear.

Host: Right. And I think one of the takeaways from what you went through is when it comes to crisis communication, don't forget about the internal staff.

Christina Kerby: That's exactly right. And I've held numerous internal communication roles as well. And I've always made it a best practice to inform staff internally before informing the public of announcements or issues. And there is no such thing as internal versus external messages anymore, especially in this day and age of social media. Everyone's receiving the same information in real time. And so it's incredibly important to be as authentic with your staff as you are when communicating externally because it's the internal staff, the employees who are going to be the ambassadors for these messages and they'll be telling the story long after the crisis is over. So it's important to take care of them as well.

Host: Really a great point, and I love how you use the word authenticity because that's what it is. People are craving, they don't want spin. They want the facts of what's really happening. And that's what you were providing the outside world was spinning. What's happening inside that ship, you were providing the facts, you are providing authentic communication. Right?

Christina Kerby: Right, right. And I think my experience also speaks to the importance of elevating credible subject matter experts. You know, in this case I was the subject matter expert as a passenger. And in you know, in a health system for example, you're going to want to talk to the patients because they're the ones who are having the experience, and living the experience. So as much as Holland America was doing a good job communicating with the outside world, the perspective of a passenger on board, the ship is a hundred times more valuable to a reporter or the general public than would be the perspective of the CEO of the company.

Host: So these are all really important points to remember, especially as some of us are going to turn to crisis mode as we get deeper into the COVID-19 pandemic. So these are good things to keep in mind. So back to Anderson Cooper. At one point, I mean this blew up. How crazy is this? You go on a cruise and now you're talking to Anderson Cooper on CNN, but at one point you also wrote that you felt like you went from covering this story to becoming this story. Tell us about that perspective.

Christina Kerby: Yeah, absolutely. And again, it's because I was bringing that passenger perspective, that inside look inside the ship. And I think that's what reporters were interested in hearing about, what's your day to day life? Like what did you have for breakfast? And so when I spoke with the Anderson, I really wanted to get across the point that you know, I'm not, I wasn't in my communications role. I was in my normal person on a ship role and here's what it looks like from the inside. So, and I think that reporters began to seek me out for that reason, that I was able to bring some levelheadedness. I was bringing I was bringing a fact based approach, so I wasn't speculating. I wasn't crying about how miserable the situation was. So I had this sort of journalistic lens, but I was only, I was staying within my lane. I wasn't going outside of my role as a passenger.

Host: Right. So you just mentioned reporters, so somebody that's having to do crisis communication reporters are going to be coming to that person looking for information, looking for story, ideas. We're there reporters that did it correctly that you felt really did it right that you really wanted to communicate and some that were just trying to get you to say something that you didn't want to say or really just angling for one thing. What did you learn about reporters and is there a lesson in there for us?

Christina Kerby: Oh, definitely. Yeah, the first lesson that we all know is that reporters are human. So it's okay to get on their level and talk to them as a human being. At the same time, we all know as well that there's no thing as off the record. So report you can have a normal conversation with the reporter, but you have to assume and prepare for it that everything you say will become part of their story. I think I've heard somewhere that reporters often have the story written before they even reach out to the spokesperson. And often our role as the spokesperson is to simply validate whatever they were already planning to write. So I wouldn't necessarily think you can go in there planning to change their mind, but you should have your story in mind when you begin a conversation with the reporter and no matter what they ask, make sure that you are telling your story from beginning to end in the way that you want to tell it. Because if you let yourself get thrown off by their questions, you're just going to be reinforcing the story that they were already planning to tell.

Host: Right? So basically stick to your authentic story if you will, and tell it as you want to tell it. Don't let them take control, in other words.

Christina Kerby: Right, exactly. And, and you know, you can't ever underestimate the value of practice and rehearsal. And then the last thing I would say about this is trust your gut. If you get a call from a reporter who really seems to be sniffing down a certain angle that you're not comfortable with, it's okay to decline that interview. Or if you get a question you're not comfortable with, it's okay to say, I'm going to have to get back to you on that. I can't answer that right now. And I think a lot of us in the heat of the moment feel like we owe the reporter a response, even if it's not appropriate to do so. Right.

Host: So finally, you were able to disembark in Cambodia. Oh my God. What an ordeal. Right? So then it was thought that someone may have had Coronavirus on your cruise. So you were quarantined basically shelter in place until that was cleared, but then finally you were able to fly home.

Christina Kerby: Right. Yeah, we were in Cambodia for about five days. We were all tested for Coronavirus, which was a scary experience in and of itself. And it wasn't until after we all received our negative test results and flew home that we later found out that that person fortunately did not have the virus.

Host: Well that's good. And then when you did get home, what was the reaction?

Christina Kerby: The thing that surprised me the most about the experience was the stigma that I faced when I returned home. Because people genuinely were scared of me. They were afraid to be around me. They thought I had been exposed. And that was probably what hurt the most. Even after being rejected by five countries coming home and having, getting these questions from my community about whether it was safe.

Host: Right. Something you probably didn't expect. I'm sorry, you had to go through that. So as we get towards the end, Christina, and thank you for your time, you also mentioned that through this whole ordeal it really took its toll on your health and you really started to feel rundown because of all of this attention and the tweeting and the interviews. So when you're doing crisis communication and you're on the front lines and if you try to work too long, it's going to take its toll and potentially affect your performance. Is that another takeaway from this?

Christina Kerby: Yeah, it really is. It's such an important lesson because I was basically doing a 24 hour international media cycle from onboard the cruise ship. And you know, after a few days of this I realized I am not sleeping. I'm not eating well. I'm stressed out. And so the lesson here is call for backup. Don't be afraid to reach out to others around you or don't be afraid to say no. If you need to in order to take care of yourself because it's like they say, adjust your own oxygen mask first. Right now because of the situation with the virus, we are all at the front lines. Everyone in communication is at the front lines right now, even supporting healthcare professionals, supporting the communities that we serve. And so it's important for us all to just be compassionate, not only with the messages that we share, but also with ourselves.

Host: Very well said. Be compassionate in your messages and be compassionate towards yourself. So as you look back over this whole ordeal, Christina, what are a few things that you've learned from this, if you can share those with us?

Christina Kerby: Well, one of the ones is that it's important to be human when reporting from the front lines. And for me that meant using humor to communicate authenticity. Now, humor is not always inappropriate hook. And especially for those of us in healthcare use of camera can be risky. But I think that you can use elements of humor or lightness, and for example, some of the videos of doctors and nurses dancing or celebrating at hospitals I think have been really effective. Enlightening the public mood in the face of crisis. And I think, like I said earlier, the other message for me is just sticking with the facts and being compassionate and authentic. No matter what that will serve you in a crisis or it will serve you in just your day to day life as a communicator.

Host: Yeah, really good lessons that you just shared with us. And thank you so much for that. And then question I have for you and probably the most important question of all, Christina, will you ever go on a cruise again?

Christina Kerby: You know, I've got to say, I am now a fan thanks to the crew and the comradery of the, of my fellow passengers. I can't wait to go back when this all settles down.

Host: I wasn't expecting that answer.

Christina Kerby: You know, if you'd asked me a month ago, I probably would've said no, but it's a great way to travel. So I actually got a free cruise out of this from Holland America. They refunded all of our cruises and gave us a credit. So as soon as when the world opens back up, I'm getting right back on that boat.

Host: And there's another lesson in there as well. If you get knocked down, make sure you get right back up again. Christina, we're very happy you're home safe. Thank you for sharing your story and thank you so much for your time.

Christina Kerby: Thank you, Bill.

Host: That's Christina Kerby. And if you'd like to connect with Christina, you can find her on linked in. And to learn more about SHSMD, visit and please subscribe to this podcast and visit our education page to learn about upcoming programs at And if you found this podcast helpful and please, how could you not, please share it on all of your social channels. This has been a production of Doctor Podcasting. I'm Bill Klaproth. See ya!