'Don’t caveat apologies' – How Thomas Cook should have handled its Corfu crisis

Holidays are a time to relax, put our cares aside and enjoy new experiences. But for the parents of two young children killed in Greece by fumes from a faulty hotel boiler, a relaxing break became their worst nightmare.

The tragic story took another turn last week when it was revealed that Thomas Cook, the tour operator behind the holiday, had received a reported £3.5m in compensation after the deaths. The parents of the children told a newspaper they received only around a tenth of that figure.

This news follows on from the recent inquest into the tragedy, where Thomas Cook’s chief executive, Peter Fankhauser, was asked to apologise to the family on behalf of the firm. He responded: "I feel incredibly sorry for the family – incredibly sorry. But I don't have to apologise."

He went on to add: “I feel so thoroughly, from the deepest of my heart, sorry but there's no need to apologise because there was no wrongdoing by Thomas Cook."

His words resulted in a barrage of criticism and as details surrounding this heart-breaking event and the tour operator’s response to it continue to emerge, Thomas Cook’s reputation is undoubtedly taking a battering.

How then, could they have responded differently?

Don’t caveat apologies

Fankhauser’s inquest response is caught up in the semantics of the difference between saying sorry and apologising. It ends up sounding unfeeling. In cases like this you don’t make excuses, you don’t offer up ‘ifs’ and ‘buts' – you keep it simple and heartfelt.

See it from your stakeholders’ perspective

I have no doubt that this has been a hugely stressful experience for those at Thomas Cook and that time and resources have been invested in responding to the events in 2006. But frankly, the outside world doesn’t really care. What they see is two grieving parents battling for someone to take responsibility for the tragedy. An organisation’s ability to take a step back and view their crisis from the perspective of their stakeholders is critical. By understanding what your audience wants to know and hear you are better placed to respond appropriately.

Flexibility

During a crisis you need to constantly take the temperature of public opinion. How are people responding to your messages? What is the overall feeling towards you as an organisation? You then need to be flexible enough to adapt your strategy to respond to any changes. I’m not sure we saw much evidence of this from Thomas Cook.

Don’t let process overrule human response

There is no doubt that Thomas Cook would have carefully considered its responses and every word of every statement. But somehow, in all of that, it has lost the genuine tone that expresses the sadness we all feel when we hear about events such as this. This is about real people and demands an empathetic response showing the human side of the organisation.

There are no easy solutions when it comes to effective crisis communications. You need to do the homework – have plans that guide people and training that helps support those having to make difficult decisions.

But, the homework only really pays off when you have the right people delivering it –those with a natural ability to be one step ahead of an emerging issue and to communicate sensitively and empathetically when it happens.

Alex Johnson is a consultant at Insignia

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