It’s difficult to know where to even begin when it comes to unpicking the extent of the communications failings in the case of the Thomas Cook disaster.
Today, you can rest assured that the corporate reputation of the company is in pieces, and that its management and PR teams are going to have to start on a very long and slow road of self reflection and recovery.
You’d suspect we’ll see one or two players in this shambles of a story fall on their sword for the sake of the brand’s future – but even then, most of us will say it is merely ‘too little too late’.
So, if we’re going to look back and say how should a competent and measured PR team have approached this terrible fatality all those years ago, what would have been the best course of action?
Well, for a start, the company needed to realise that this was one of those classic scenarios where PR reputation should have been playing second fiddle to being human, being decent, being empathetic, and being courteous.
Thomas Cook showed none of this.
In fact, PR performance would have shone as a by-product of the humanised approach.
No-one could bring back young Bobby and Christi Shepherd, but the appropriate and sincere actions of Thomas Cook and others surrounding the tragedy could have made the whole trauma a little more bearable.
Instead, what we’ve seen is a story that seems to have been led more by lawyers and suits, with little involvement or thought in respect of appropriate corporate communications.
One can almost imagine the conversations that have gone on behind closed doors from the outset “don’t apologise”, “express no guilt”, “there’s too much at stake here.”
These would have been the murmurings of legal dictators and advisors, determined to control the outward expressions of the company – and yet where were the internal PR advisors stepping into the ring to emphasise the absolute paramount importance of early empathy and understanding?
Clearly, it appears the door to those communications advisors was firmly shut and the management swallowed the dictation of the suits.
It was a gamble.
And that gamble has seen the chips fall against them.
Even now, with Thomas Cook’s Peter Franhauser having announced a donation to charity from the money received by them, no-one for one minute sees this as enough of a recompense.
Moreover, the full and appropriate apology has remained lacking. It has come across as little more than a ‘part way’ and contrived sentiment expressed within the media.
When a brand faces an incident as horrific as a death or disaster, of course it’s no easy task for the management or the PR team, but it’s imperative that strategy and appropriateness is applied from the outset.
One might have expected at the very least:
Communications teams involved from the outset and included on legal meetings
Issuing of an empathetic statement and apology for attributable part
Thorough support to the family and those concerned
Face to face early contact with the grieving family
Ongoing media conversation where appropriate (not the ‘hiding’ tactic seen here)
Management level willingness to personalise and be ‘involved’ (at the very least – Franhauser to meet with the grieving parents)
And, in this case, most of us would agree that the full settlement should have been placed with the family AS SOON AS it was available
What we’ve been left with is a textbook case of PR failings and a scenario which will no doubt be held up as a ‘how not to do it’ in media and PR courses throughout the land for years to come.
If you’re going to learn any lessons from this, learn that while PR is about reputation management, it is also about understanding that sometimes, the best thing we can do is to be human and be fair.
(Even when the legal and insurance suits may twitch at the mere thought…).
**I’m currently seeking new consultancy projects in the world of PR, communications, strategy and marketing, so feel free to drop me a line if I can be of assistance. firstname.lastname@example.org