By Cliff Moore, Account Director, Deep South Media
Let us consider the case of Thomas Cook, a well-respected travel firm with a history longer than forever, but hit by tragedy, controversy and colossal bad publicity.
For Thomas Cook, founded way back in 1841 (the present firm in 2007) and one of the world’s best-known names in travel, the last month has been an unmitigated disaster.
The case of the tragic deaths of Christi and Bobby Shepherd, killed by carbon monoxide poisoning while on holiday in Corfu at a hotel booked through Thomas Cook in 2006, provides a perfect template of how not to manage bad news.
The inquest verdict was that the children were unlawfully killed. Thomas Cook had ‘breached its duty of care’.
The firm’s desultory statement pointed out that its employees had previously been cleared of wrongdoing by a Greek investigation, however it ‘recognised’ the pain of the family.
Four days later a letter of apology was sent from Cook’s chief executive Peter Fankhauser to parents Neil Shepherd and Sharon Wood. We also heard of the millions the firm was receiving in compensation.
Four more days and Mr Fankhauser finally met the parents and it was revealed they would receive “financial gesture of goodwill” from the firm – which they said they would give to charities.
The firm was branded ‘disgraceful’ by the parents, who said Thomas Cook was putting them last in the equation and that the apology was ‘an appalling continuation of Thomas Cook’s PR exercise’.
Could this, in terms of public relations, have been any worse for Thomas Cook?
In a word, no.
It was a fast-moving story but over a number of days so there was plenty of opportunity for the firm to attempt to regain some of the goodwill built up over so many years and lost in an instant.
This didn’t happen, so one can only assume that some fairly poor advice had been given to Thomas Cook – or good advice ignored.
Whichever is true, the firm’s standing will not be the same again for many years, if ever. It wouldn’t be a surprise to find the share price tumbling further and bookings dropping off.
Would you consider booking a holiday with the firm now?
Will this be Thomas Cook’s Gerald Ratner moment?
Can we please also remember that the main point here is that two young lives have been lost?
And make a note that Thomas Cook’s only daughter Annie Elizabeth also died – aged 34 in November 1880 – from carbon monoxide poisoning from an early gas water heater at the family home in Leicester.
The waters may be muddied by threats of court action and the difficulty of dealing with something so far away, but there is no excuse for not being decisive, proactive and honest.
This tragedy-hit family felt they were treated appallingly by the firm and left to fend for themselves – that’s a good way to lose future customers.
It’s not about the money, although it helps. You can’t buy off bad publicity, but you can be shown to be caring, supportive and generous.
And you need to communicate, to front up to the media, to get your message across as you want it, not how others perceive it. Silence says so much, in a completely negative way.
And finally, actually be sorry rather than just say you are.