Not just a PR failure, but a failure to be human: How Thomas Cook got its Corfu response badly wrong

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Right now Thomas Cook is, quite rightly in my mind, knee deep in a storm that it could have so easily avoided. The Corfu compensation case is a tragically sad story that tugs at the heart strings of every parent and, as a dad of three, I can only imagine the anguish that the family must have gone through.

How has Thomas Cook got it so wrong? This is not so much a public relations failure as a 'being a decent human being' failure. I am willing to lay a wager of £5 that the public relations advice that has been given has been ignored and most likely because of the contrasting advice being given by the legal bods involved.

I am sad to say that I have worked in the comms function of a few companies that have had fatalities, both of staff and customers, and simply put, it is the most difficult and emotional time for everyone involved. It is also a time when you get to truly understand the ethos of the company that you work for and this usually comes via strong leadership form the top.

The majority of CEOs are good and decent people and the reason why they don’t just come out and say what they truly feel about this kind of situation – that they really care, are truly saddened by it and want to do all that they can for those involved ie being a human 101 – is that they have legal counsel briefing them on the consequences of what they say in public. This results in a very diluted, very poor and more often than not, very cold, message coming out.

If it were me, and if I were working in-house, I would have gone straight to the legal team and tried to chat to them one to one, without the CEO, and highlighted the business consequences of not coming across as human in the response to the situation. The business consequences, in this case being a reputation that is in tatters, are that sales will take a nose-dive this year and that Thomas Cook will become a case-study for corporate reputation mishandling for years to come.

Next steps would have been to go and visit the family, there and then in the immediate aftermath, and do whatever it took to try and help (ideally involving the CEO in this). The CEO should have dropped everything to go and meet the family straight away and promise the highest level of support. I understand that corporate apologies come with legal consequences but this is a time where the legal rule book needs to be thrown out of the window… back to 'being a human 101'.

Finally, even the most ardent corporate-hater will understand the legal and insurance reasons behind the company claiming compensation for the tragic deaths but this money should have been handed over, in full, to the family straight away. It is too late to do this now; it will look like it has been done as an afterthought and as a result of public and media pressure. It should have been done straight away and corporate consequences left to be dealt with later on.

Right now, Thomas Cook is in a precarious corporate position. The company needs to learn from this and repair a reputation that is getting worse by the day in terms of media coverage.

The business is now entering the territory where a director, or one of the C-Suite, needs to be given the boot in order to try and show that they are learning lessons and that there have been internal consequences of the very poor handling of this case. The CEO, Peter Fankhauser, should be a bit twitchy right now and could well get the dreaded call to go and see the chairman about the situation, and maybe bring his phone and laptop with him… always the sign that you are not coming back.

A very sad story and one in which Thomas Cook may very well pay the price of seemingly forgetting the basics of how to be a human.

Andy Barr heads up the PR agency 10 Yetis and tweets @10Yetis

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