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Not the Vacation I Planned: Tragedy Transitions Vacationing PR Pro Into Media Relations Juggernaut

Jo Trizila (1)By Jo Trizila, President and CEO, TrizCom PR and Pitch PR

On Wednesday, May 11, our bags were packed and excitement was in the air. We were getting away for a few days, including unplugging all electronic devices—no cell phone, no email and no texting. We were in Galveston, Texas, for our Carnival Cruise the following day. We are all seasoned cruisers, having taken more than 40 cruises. We were excited.

That same night, while we were having dinner overlooking the Gulf, I was lecturing to my 6-year-old the safety concerns of going on a large ship even though she has been on quite a few cruises. I reminded her that there are large railings all around the boat, and she is not to climb up on any of them. Being the overprotective mother that I am, I even added that if they catch you trying to stand on the railing, they will arrest you. If you fall in the water, you die. I know this is a little harsh, but I wanted to make sure she remembered how dangerous the water is and not to mess around with the side rails, especially since we were in a balcony room.


The following day, we boarded the Carnival Liberty. There was a feeling of anticipation. We were on vacation. I was unplugged from everything—Facebook, Twitter, email, text and phone!

The next day, Friday, May 13, we were awoken around 9 a.m. with announcements from the cruise director, “Samantha Broberg, please call 7777.” These types of announcements happen all the time—many times it’s because someone’s credit card on file isn’t working. A lot of times the person is paged several times; therefore, not much thought was given to the announcements.

However, this announcement was different. The frequency of it was concerning. It started off every 20 or 30 minutes, then every 15 minutes and finally every few minutes. Over and over we heard, “Samantha Broberg, please call 7777.” I knew there was a missing passenger.

My daughter was going down the waterslide, playing in the pool and having a great time. The smell of sunscreen filled the air. Reggae music was blasting over the intercom and fun was being had. On the top deck, floors 9 and 10 where the pools and cafes are located were packed with vacationers. When announcements are made, you can’t hear what the announcement is, but all music stops. Since the pool revelers didn’t know what was happening, there were a lot of boos from the crowds.

I had gone inside to call my cruise mates when I heard the announcements twice – triggering concern. I came back to my pool lounge chair and started a conversation with the ladies next to me. “I think there is a missing lady.” Then we saw about 50 uniformed staff members (some in security outfits, others in all white) carrying a photo and looking at poolside guests. Four times I was asked to remove my sunglasses. This went on for about 45 minutes. At this point, the DJ or the cruise director came over the pool intercom, stating, “We are looking for a missing guest, Samantha Broberg. If you know of Samantha Broberg’s whereabouts, please contact 7777 or a Carnival staff member.”

About 2 p.m., the cruise director came over the announcement system and said the captain was initiating a cabin to cabin search. All passengers were to immediately evacuate their locations, proceed to their staterooms and remain there until further instruction. Within 5 minutes, the pool decks were completely emptied. Passengers were orderly, quiet and very respectful. I was amazed.

We got to our cabin, and my daughter started asking a lot of questions. “Why is she lost? Where do you think she is, Mommy?” I explained that she might be hiding, or she might be hurt and unable to come out. That is why the captain wants to search the ship. “But Mommy, what if they can’t find her?” I took a deep breath and said, “Honey, if they can’t find her, it means she went overboard.” I told Kate that we should say a prayer that they find Samantha safe. So we did. I wanted to get a message to my parents since they were on another cruise in Thailand. I knew that if my mother heard there was a missing female from a Carnival ship out of Galveston, she would be a wreck. So I spent a good hour trying to figure out how to get internet on my devices. Finally, I was able to connect and posted this message on Facebook:


During our “cabin lockdown,” announcements were made fairly regularly. “Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for your cooperation while we conduct this search. If this was your family member, you would want us to do the same. We are still conducting our search.” Announcements were made directly to Samantha: “Samantha, if you can hear my voice, you aren’t in trouble. Just let us know you are OK. The whole crew is looking for you, and we are worried…” Then the final two announcements some 2 hours into the cabin search at around 4:45: “Ladies and gentlemen, we are concluding our search for Samantha. At this time, we ask that you keep Samantha, her family and friends in your thoughts and in your prayers.” I knew that this was not going to have a good ending.

At around 5 p.m., the unsuccessful search was complete. I checked Kate into Camp Carnival because I wanted to keep her busy and headed to the casino for 45 minutes (Camp Carnival closed at 6). The mood on the ship was very somber and quiet. While playing blackjack, the topic of conversation was Samantha. I learned that she was from Arlington, traveling with girlfriends, was married and had children. My heart sunk even deeper. I felt so bad for everyone involved.

I picked up Kate and checked my Facebook. Two of my FB connections had reached out to me—one from NBC and one from CBS. They wanted to do a story. I did the NBC story first via ship to shore phone and for the other I used FaceTime. During this time, around 7 p.m., the captain came over the speakers and stated that the ship’s video footage showed that the missing passenger appeared to have fallen overboard early in the morning. He informed us that the U.S. Coast Guard was searching for her.

To make a long story short, the national news picked up the story and was requesting video, photos and statements. The internet on the ship is VERY slow and this took so much time. But since I work with journalists every single day, I felt, in a way, like I needed to help them.

The story went viral, and I have been quoted or appeared on Dallas’ NBC and CBS, “The Today Show,” People Magazine, “Good Morning America,” ABC Nightly News, “Inside Edition,” “Nancy Grace,” Yahoo!, MSN, local radio and more.

What started off as an ordinary vacation led to a working vacation and a vacation I don’t want to repeat.

In my career, I have handled hundreds of crisis events—but none I have been a witness to or have been a part of. Just because you are not on the clock, your public relations job never ends. News—especially breaking news—never takes a vacation.

Here are a few reminders if you are ever in a breaking spot news situation that other PR pros can use:

  • Always be prepared. You never know what could happen and when your media sources might need you.
  • Document your facts immediately.
  • Record as much as you can, either by video or photographs.
  • When taking video and photographs, try to frame them horizontally so they fit better on television.
  • Have Skype installed on your devices (I did not, and it’s hard to record using FaceTime).
  • Know the limitations of text messages, Facebook posts, email, etc. with low or heavily used bandwidth.
  • Be respectful. This is not a time for speculation; just state the facts.
  • Have your headshot ready.
  • Create talking points ASAP—conduct your own Q&A.
  • First person accounts are golden, and you will make friends with 
journalists very quickly if you are a reliable source.
  • Producers and editors are looking for sources that will add value to their story—immediately.
  • Remember news gets more news…

While I don’t want this to ever happen again, I am thankful that I could assist my fellow journalists and provide credible photos, videos, background and sound bites. Know that if you are in public relations, your contacts will call. I could have easily said that I don’t wish to comment on this story, but I also know that if I help them, they will help me. Plus, it’s also about telling the story right. What better person tells a story than a public relations executive?

Although I never met Samantha, I will never forget her, and I continue to be deeply affected by her disappearance. I will keep her family and her friends in my thoughts and prayers. Godspeed, Samantha. Godspeed.

trizila3Here are some links to my Carnival Cruise Liberty stories:

Jo Trizila is president and CEO of TrizCom PR and Pitch PR located in Dallas, Texas.

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