This is not an interaction design intervention, but an intervention at the heart of the customer experience. It’s about earning customer trust—the foundation of any relationship, never more important than in the face of a crisis.

After the terrible accident of the Costa Concordia, in which at least 15 people have now died (rest in peace), news outlets are reporting this morning that Carnival has a plan to compensate surviving victims: a refund and 30% off another cruise.

The ship sank and people swam for their lives. Some did not make it. This is not a sufficient way to settle the matter, and it makes Carnival look inhumane and incompetent—not exactly the kind of impression you want to make on people while you’re desperately trying to get them to trust you enough to take a vacation on your ships, the safety of which they are now questioning.

Sigh—is this really that difficult?

From a business perspective, there are two problems here to address:

1) What Carnival does for survivors and family members of the deceased

I can’t speak to this. I’m not a survivor, and I can only imagine what I’d think if I was. I don’t know what Carnival is doing privately with these poor people. I hope it’s more than what’s been reported in today’s headlines.

2) What Carnival tells the world they’re doing to avoid further eroding customer faith and trust

I can’t respond as a survivor, but I can react as a consumer and as a customer experience professional. And based on the story that Carnival has given to the media today, the impression they give is that they are a heartless, cheap, out-of-touch company with low regard for its customers, even in the face of tragedy. A ship is on the ocean floor, at risk of breaking open and causing long-term damage to an island community. There are fatalities. People will be traumatized for years. A refund and a 30% discount? This is how much Carnival values the customer relationship? This is what I can expect if something goes massively wrong on a Carnival cruise, putting my life in jeopardy? A coupon? The horrific, traumatic experience is now capped by a tone-deaf insult.

Whether or not Carnival is doing more for survivors and family members of the deceased privately, they have just lost control of the message in the public space. They have let today’s headlines tell the story: the story of offering a discount to survivors, as if this were a carefully calculated marketing promotion. The story isn’t now about how they’re trying to do the right thing; it’s about how little they’re doing right. This was so avoidable (and sadly, that’s true on so many levels).

The Story That SHOULD Be Making News Today

Let’s make a list of the things that Carnival should be telling customers (and the rest of us who read newspapers, use the Internet, watch television, and listen to the radio) that they’re doing for each surviving passenger, and for the loved ones of those lost, and for the people of Giglio. Keep in mind that I’m not talking about disaster day. That’s a whole different story. I’m talking about communications 10 days later. Today. The story should have been built around this complete message from Carnival:

“We are still so deeply sorry about this accident and the effect it’s had on the lives of our passengers, crew, their respective families, and the people of Giglio. Today we’d like to share with you the ways we’re beginning to make amends to all affected by this terrible accident.

“First, we will forever grieve for our lost colleagues and passengers. To celebrate and honor their lives, we are paying all expenses related to laying lost loved ones to rest. And we are compensating families additionally for their loss. That alone can never be enough. Our sorrow for their losses will never end. But to symbolize our commitment to never forget, we will—when the time is right—also invite family members to work with us on a memorial to those lost: a place of beauty where the whole world will forever know their names, and that they were loved.

“Second, for the people of Giglio and Italy, we are working tirelessly to safely recover the ship and restore the environment around Giglio, and to preserve the pristine beauty of the waters we all love around this beautiful land. We are working with community leaders there to compensate the island’s people for the incredible generosity they showed to us and our passengers as the accident unfolded.

“Third, we will begin to make amends to our passengers. To earn back their trust and faith in our company, we will offer:

  1. A total refund on all vacation-related expenses, including cruise fare and all travel expenses they’ve incurred getting to the ship, and returning home;
  2. Compensation for possession losses on the ship that insurance will not cover;
  3. Financial assistance with any and all medical expenses—physical and mental health—brought on my this accident.
  4. We care deeply for the health and welfare of our passengers, even now after this accident has occurred, and will do all we can to restore their good faith in us. One day, should they decide to cruise our seas once more, we will be ready with the safest cruise line in the business. We will stop at nothing to restore the trust of our passenger, and we will prove it by becoming the safest cruise line at sea with the best trained crew and the safest ships. In that pursuit, we will spare no expense, and we will never tire. And should the passengers of this Concordia journey elect to sail with us again, we will pay for their next voyage in full, and invite them to bring a friend, as our guest, to properly experience the safest, most joyful cruise line in the world.

Until then, we will be hard at work, never resting, until we’ve made good to all involved, and until we’ve once again earned your trust.”

Update, 1/27/12: Passengers have been offered a cash settlement of $14,460 each, plus return travel expenses and medical expenses incurred after the wreck (presumably, immediate medical expenses, and not ongoing therapy). They should have done this in the first place instead of offering a 30% deal on a future cruise and damaging their brand reputation in the public eye. No word if the 30% offer still stands.