For Thomas Cook accepting responsibility was a last resort– but it will survive
If tackling the greatest ecological catastrophe of recent times with golf balls failed to reassure the US public the pronouncement by BP’s aloof chief exec Tony Hayward that he wanted his life back is the definition of insult to injury. This moment encapsulates the less than slick handling of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, a PR blowout that has become one of the canonical texts of crisis mismanagement.
Accidents happen. But as Deepwater showed the fact that they are unforeseeable does not excuse the need for the damage to be accounted for in a genuine manner. The heartfelt apology by the GermanWings executives to the families of those who died at the hands of a deranged pilot demonstrates the importance of being seen to be taking responsibility. What happened on-board flight 9525 could have happened to any other airline. Yet the admission of fault and the promise to fully support the grieving relatives was the first step to winning back trust.
Being closed and defensive is toxic to restoring trust. It sounds so simple. Yet two stories this week have demonstrated the persistence of the reputational tin ear at the rarefied high tables of corporate and geopolitical life. After inviting the world’s media behind the scenes of the World Cup preparations Qatar arrested two BBC journalists for having the audacity to do their jobs. In what was meant to provide balance to the reporting on the exploitative kafala system of indentured labour, the story became one of state censorship and police brutality- hardly the desired outcome of Portland Communications, the agency behind the Qatari government’s charm offensive.
From Doha to Wakefield: the case of Thomas Cook case demonstrates the problem of viewing responsibility through the narrow lens of legal culpability. In response to an inquest finding that Thomas Cook has “breached its duty of care” when two children were poisoned by a faulty boiler at one of the operator’s Greek resorts in 2006 its CEO refused to apologise. It then emerged that Cook received a £3.5 million pay-out from the owners of the holiday resort where the deaths occurred. The compensation received by the parents of Bobbie and Christi Shepherd was barely a tenth of this.
The perception of profiting from the tragedy, combined with its executive’s dodging of responsibility, created a twitter furore. #BoycottThomasCook has been tweeted over 1000 times since Saturday and, if the Twitoric is to be believed, many customers are cancelling their packaged hols. The announcement that half of Cook’s compensation is to be donated to UNICEF – a move designed to diffuse the profiting from tragedy smear while maintaining their lack of culpability – may have put a temporary cap on rising vitriol but it failed to undo the damage. As the Financial Times reports, Monday’s backlash wiped 3.2% from its share price. Cook has done nothing to counter the perception of an out of touch corporation. The executives, former and present, have spoken in language signed off by solicitors and given no thought to what their actions could say about a brand that asks you to “trust Thomas Cook to make your holidays truly special”.
Thomas Cook will survive the Corfu tragedy – few brands go out of business after one crisis. The boycott hashtags are significant and the ongoing conduct of the company will remain sharply in focus; but it isn’t representative of Cook’s entire customer base. Unlike the boycott movements that have endured –the Nestle milk formula movement being the touchstone case – the backlash is not directed at an ongoing injustice but a response to a sad case that will inevitably fade in the public’s mind. The packaged holiday market has proved to be resilient in the face of online booking; operators like Cook have been reborn as holiday curators, designing a variety of getaway experiences for different lifestyles. While Cook’s flagship brand has been tainted –the strapline “Don’t just book it” proved to be too easy a target- it has several companies within its group that have distinct branding and are not immediately exposed. Lifting itself out of the PR nadir, Cook may choose to invest more in its Flexible Trips, its Crestas, its Club 18:30s and wind down its primary brand. This may explain why, despite the stumble early this week, Cook’s share price has already picked up.
As for Tony Hayward, he finally did get his life back – being appointed chairman of another oil company three years to the month of the Deepwater blowout.