Sorry seems to be the hardest word

So the boss of Thomas Cook has finally said sorry to the parents of Christi and Bobby Sheppard, the children killed by a leaky boiler during their holiday in Corfu.

Whether this is a case of ‘too little, too late’ only time will tell.  The company claims their sales have not been impacted by the furore over how they have behaved since the tragedy and in particular around last week’s inquest. However the power of the consumer should not be underestimated, particularly when we know thousands have already criticised and called for a boycott of the company on social media.

Thomas Cook has experienced a media battering this week and not without cause. By all reports it has handled this issue like an automaton from the outset, primarily concerned about liability and the bottom line with no humanity shown to the family. Then responding clumsily and woodenly when faced with a public outcry.

This will no doubt become the case study PR gurus point to in future when they preach the 5 golden rules of a crisis:

  • Don’t let lawyers dictate the strategy. Admissions of responsibility and the financial cost of such should always be weighed against public and reputational considerations.
  • Always involve outside counsel to avoid the danger of group-think in decisions, words and deeds.
  • Don’t dance on a pin-head to avoid saying sorry by offering a multitude of platitudes instead. Sometimes only sorry will do.
  • Apologies made after a media pounding lack authenticity. Better done early on as a genuine gesture and by a spokeperson who can convey some sense of humility and emotion.
  • Take all stakeholders into account. The media are just one constituency but a dialogue with them should come after direct and personal communication with any victims and those involved.

Bell Yard’s observation is that you will be judged as much by how you handle a problem as on the problem itself.   Thomas Cook will now surely join the ranks of BP and RBS as masters in how to turn a crisis into an even bigger reputational disaster.


20 May 2015

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