Thomas Cook has been all over the news for the past week. And none of it has been good.
The firm has been giving a masterclass in PR mismanagement in the wake of an inquest into the deaths of two children, Christi and Bobby Shepherd, during a family holiday with the firm in 2006.
Carbon monoxide fumes from a faulty boiler overcame the children, aged 6 and 7, during a holiday to Corfu.
Blame for the deaths was attributed to the owners of the Louis Corcyra Beach Hotel, where the children died, in a criminal trial in Greece in 2010 but Thomas Cook has subsequently been found to have breached its duty of care in a UK-based inquest.
The PR disaster began during the course of the inquest where Thomas Cook employees refused to answer questions, exercising their legal right to do so, which included former chief executive Manny Fontenla-Novoa.
The current Thomas Cook chief exec Peter Fankhauser, told jurors: “I feel so thoroughly, from the deepest of my heart, sorry, but there’s no need to apologise because there was no wrongdoing by Thomas Cook.”
Umm, yes there is, Peter. This is a common approach from firms who are looking to avoid any admission of guilt and is often thanks to legal guidance where apologising is seen as tantamount to a confession of wrongdoing. From a legal perspective these evasive responses avoid any incrimination. But from a human perspective they do anything but. Children have died. It’s not apportioning blame for a delayed flight.
Regardless as to whether or not Thomas Cook knew about the hotel having gas fired boilers, the fact remains that the family organised the holiday through a supposedly reputable retailer in Thomas Cook, with two children dying as a result. Without Thomas Cook the family wouldn’t have stayed there.
There have clearly been failures in the firm’s safety processes. Taking somebody’s word on something or relying on a shoddy audit isn’t a good enough quality control process. For this alone, the firm should say sorry, and in this instance, apologising to bereaved parents should be regarded as basic human decency. The company should have been forthright and apologised from the off. The lack of one has undoubtedly contributed to the family’s grief.
It’s not just failing to apologise either. The PR handling went from bad to worse in the aftermath of the inquest. At the weekend the Mail on Sunday revealed that the company had forwarded it a letter of apology (that it claimed to have sent to the family), which it asked the paper ‘to publish in full’. However, the family said that they’d received no such letter or indeed known about one until the paper informed them. The Mail subsequently, and witheringly, revealed this to its readers. Another awful PR move. Asking press to publish something fully is such a transparently corporate approach that it was bound to backfire. And journalists certainly don’t like being told what to do.
It then emerged that the firm had quietly received £3.5 million in damages for the detrimental effect to its reputation in 2013. This is ten times the amount that the individual parents received in compensation for the death of their children. The reason this was pushed under the radar in 2013 by the firm is because it was always going to be a PR problem. As observers have since pointed out, the figure suggests that Thomas Cook’s reputation is worth ten times the life of a child.
The hotel was guilty of wrongdoing and Thomas Cook was right to pursue damages, but this should have been offered to the parents when it was first awarded. However, it chose not to do so.
Instead, since the uproar, the firm has blundered along its PR course, announcing that after covering its legal costs it has now given £1.5million to Unicef, the ‘leading children’s charity’, stating that it believed it was ‘the right thing to do’.
Giving money to charity is certainly commendable, but why didn’t the firm offer the money to the family directly? If they chose to keep it: who would blame them? If they gave it to charity themselves, they could have either chosen a charity of their choice or set up a charity in their children’s name, thus providing them with a legacy.
The charitable donation was a desperate bid to try and reverse some of the negative press, but all it’s done is generate more criticism. It smacks of a reluctant and forced reaction.
Covering legal costs would have been acceptable if the firm had initially opted to pass on the compensation at the time that it received it, but now it just contributes to the bad publicity. At this stage, it should have offered to donate the full £3.5million and consulted with the family in the process.
This morning, finally, the firm has now publicly apologised. It appeared as ‘breaking news’ on the BBC news channel, which just goes to highlight the level of scrutiny the case has received.
Shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted has never been a more apt phrase. Rather than PR fire fighting, this looks like pouring water onto the smouldering ruins of a corporate reputation that has only just realised its previously been using petrol.
The comms team at Thomas Cook has either been kept out of the loop, or has been doing an appalling job. The brand has suffered huge reputational damage, with £75m wiped off the share value as worried investors jump ship, which makes the compensation figure look increasingly trivial to a brand of its size. Social media has called for a boycott of the company and there are online petitions echoing similar sentiments.
Along with the apology, the chief executive (who is apparently meeting with the family tomorrow) should seriously consider stepping down. From the start there’s been no clear plan, which has seen the company stumble from one mistake to another, reinforcing the family’s pain at every ill-judged turn.
Thomas Cook has been guilty of a lack of compassion and humanity. When it comes to this kind of situation, you need to step out of the suit for a moment and take a view from the outside world. This is an appalling tragedy, which has been handled abysmally and is a corporate lesson in 1) how not to do Public Relations and 2) how not to treat fellow human beings.
PR aside, the real issue here is that two children have died. Thomas Cook should ‘hang its head in shame’ according to the children’s mother Sharon Wood, and she’s absolutely right.