I hate starting off with a disclaimer, but this is one of those situations where though the guilty party deserves to be publicly embarrassed, it wouldn’t be right to do so. Let this story of a hurtful headline that will never go away provide a cautionary tale for other travel writers who post stories directly to the Web without editorial review.

In January a young female passenger on a Star Clippers ship was brutally murdered on the Caribbean island of Antigua. Star Clippers is our client, so we engaged in crisis communications regarding the incident and Star Clippers’ subsequent decision to cancel the rest of its ship calls at Antigua for the balance of the season.

Violent crime had been increasing in Antigua, and this was another in a string of attacks on tourists to the island. The tragic incident garnered widespread media coverage. Following the capture of a suspect and his subsequent confession, the attention died down.

Following discussions with the Antiguan government regarding the safety and security of passengers, Star Clippers’ management decided to return to the island during the coming winter cruise season. Wanting to avoid the negative publicity such an announcement would bring, the line did not make the decision public — other than to publish it in a brochure and on its website.

A sharp-eyed cruise reporter who had covered the murder story extensively noted the return of Antigua to Star Clippers’ itineraries and sent me an e-mail query. We responded with this statement:

When Royal Clipper and Star Clipper return to the Caribbean for the upcoming winter cruise season, Antigua will be back on the roster after being pulled last season over concerns about the safety and security of passengers.

“Star Clippers has been assured by the Antiguan government that they have improved security on the island, particularly in the areas where our guests visit,” said Jack Chatham, president of Star Clippers Americas. “We will do a site inspection prior to our November 2010 port calls in Antigua to determine if all our concerns have been addressed. If we conclude that issues of safety and increased security have not been resolved to our satisfaction, we will change the itineraries of Royal Clipper and Star Clipper to include alternative ports of call.”

The reporter wrote a fair and balanced article about the fact that the line had decided to return to Antigua. Another reporter for an online travel news site, call her Z, read that story and contacted us for the statement.

When Z’s story ran the following day, we were shocked and angered by the four-word headline that managed to be cruel, sensational and in extremely poor taste simultaneously. I dashed off a very angry e-mail to Z and her editor demanding that the head be changed and some distorted language be edited, but before the client approved my note, the headline was altered.

Unfortunately, though the headline was changed, the URL still had the offensive headline in it. I quickly changed my e-mail, toned it down a bit and asked for the URL to be removed. It finally was changed, and the article gradually made its way off page one as more stories came in.

At the end of the day I went to write a post about the incident. I planned to publish the offensive headline while protecting Z’s identity. However, a quick Google search using the headline took me directly to the renamed story. I asked a colleague to conduct the same search and she had the same results.

That offensive headline, which insulted the island of Antigua and flippantly disregarded the murder of a young woman will live on online forever.

Which should be a lesson to anyone who regularly posts web content without the intervention of an editor: If you publish a mean-spirited, gratuitous, insulting headline on the web, you can never make it go away. You can replace it, but it will always be there, a barely hidden hurtful thing that could come back to bite you.

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