Lynn Foote has a secret.
If she reveals it, she may not get the compensation she deserves from Viking Cruises. If she doesn’t, she’ll make our job as advocates a little harder.
At issue is Foote’s recent river cruise in France, which was subjected to several reschedulings for a variety of reasons until the cruise became more of a bus tour. Foote felt she deserved a price adjustment, and our advocates agreed, contacting Viking on her behalf.
And it worked. Sort of.
“We have been advised to say that the case has been mutually settled and agreed upon by both parties,” she told our team a few weeks later. “I appreciate any help that you have given us and interceded on our behalf. We need advocates like you and I certainly will recommend you to anyone who has any issues.”
I have mixed feelings about the fix. I want Foote to get what she deserves, too, but secrecy is the enemy of advocacy. And that leaves me with the following question: Is the confidentiality clause Foote agreed to helping her — or Viking?
Viking, as you know, is one of several companies that push nondisclosure agreements in front of their customers after our advocates get involved.
Here’s the clause Foote would have been asked to agree to:
Beginning as of the date of this Settlement Agreement, neither this Agreement nor its subject matter shall be discussed with anyone other than the parties to the Agreement or their attorneys, except as otherwise required by law. We/I also agree to take all steps reasonably necessary to protect the confidentiality of this Settlement Agreement and to prevent the Settlement Agreement from falling into the public domain or into the possession of unauthorized persons or persons who do not work for Viking.
We/I agree that, if asked about the status of any claims by or disputes between the parties to this Settlement Agreement, we/I shall not communicate the terms of the settlement except to state that this matter has been amicably resolved.
I can think of two reasons why Viking would insist its customers sign this kind of agreement — one good, one not so good.
The good reason: Viking doesn’t want to set a precedent. Chances are, it offered her real money in exchange for her silence. That’s money Foote probably felt she deserved either way, but discussing the settlement might open the floodgates for other claimants.
The not-so-good reason: Viking wanted to keep this case and any reported settlement out of the media. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work that way. We don’t have to have a dollar figure in order to report a case like this.
In fact, I’m going out of my way to report this one because of the problematic precedent it sets for our advocacy. But more on that in a minute.
Foote’s perspective is that she just wanted her money. She’s not concerned about letting the world know about the problem and solution, nor does she care about the effectiveness of our advocacy. I don’t expect her to give those any consideration. But I will say this: By signing what amounts to a gag order before talking to our advocates, who made this settlement possible, she is harming our ability to help future Viking customers.
But I would be most concerned with the way all this makes Viking look. Slipping a gag clause into a settlement agreement may make the lawyers happy, but it creates a huge PR problem. It makes Viking look paranoid, as if it has other secrets it is trying to hide.
I don’t think it wants to send that message; in fact, I don’t believe it’s true. I’ve sailed on a Viking cruise in the past, and it was a terrific experience. Knowing what I do about its corporate culture, I don’t think the company is paranoid or secretive.
If I were handling PR for the cruise line, I would advise them to drop the confidentiality clause. I would want everyone to know about the great customer service my client delivers when something goes wrong. That would turn the story from one about restrictive contracts and secrets into one about excellent customer service.
I’m not holding my breath.