Superferry: A Public Relations Lightning Rod

Dr. Tom Kelleher
Dr. Tom Kelleher

HONOLULU (KHNL) -- Another announcement and another delay with the Hawaii Superferry. Its executives decided to scrap a plan to add a second daily trip to Maui after Mayor Charmaine Tavares voiced concerns; among them, she wasn't consulted beforehand.

It's one more, in a series of fits and starts for the embattled Alakai. The Superferry is somewhat of a public relations lightning rod.

Apart from the University of Hawaii athletics program, no other local organization has received this much public attention over the past year. With that much scrutiny, any misstep or even perceived misstep can turn into a PR nightmare.

The Alakai is arguably the most controversial catamaran in the world. Its voyage to Hawaii, protests, and legal battles have all been documented by the local media. The ship has polarized the state, and stalled service for almost four months.

"The starts and stops, there's a lot of ups and downs," said Dr. Tom Kelleher, a communications professor specializing in public relations at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. "And at the end of the day, they're not able to work their business model the way they'd like to, so it's a negative thing for them obviously."

Prof. Kelleher said the Superferry saga illustrates the complicated nature of gaining consensus.

"And it goes to show the public isn't just one amorphous mass," he said. "There's lots of different groups with lots of different interests."

Prof. Kelleher added, it's much easier to earn support early on, instead of doing damage control after a misstep.

"They certainly, in theory, go in and have that conversation before it becomes a crisis," he said.

And many agree the most recent controversy of adding a second trip to Maui before consulting with the mayor there, can be classified as bad PR.

"It wasn't just that she wasn't included," said Prof. Kelleher. "I think she also feels that the publics should have been included and that should be apparent by now."

He believes for the Alakai to survive in Hawaii, its executives must execute a careful balancing act.

"Yes, keep communication lines open," said Prof. Kelleher. "But on the other hand, and I'm sure I don't need to tell them this, you've got to have a profitable business model or you're not going to be here at all."

Kelleher said Superferry executives have done other things that are in the "good PR" category; things like bringing over kids from Maui to go to the Bishop Museum, hosting military families for a trip around Oahu and transporting military equipment to help clean up flood damage in upcountry Maui.