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Tunisia, Thomson and the importance of communicating responsibly in times of crisis

Thomson chiefs speak to the media outside its UK HQ

If there was one poignant moment which struck home for me in the aftermath of the Tunisia tragedy, it was a traumatised holidaymaker talking on national news about his ‘sympathy’ for a 20-something travel rep.

This was not a compassionate response to the rep having been injured or harmed – instead that he recognised the young woman had absolutely been shoved in the line of fire and tasked with communicating on behalf of her travel operator employer.

It was, without doubt, a further ‘ouch’ PR moment for another travel brand which had been left wanting when it came to appropriate crisis communications.

In an age where social media and 24-7 broadcasting gives way to citizen journalism and the opportunity for eye-witnesses to immediately start telling their story to a global audience, what on earth were the management team at Thomson thinking to remain so remote in their communication style?

To the uninitiated in the media world, it must seem quite some logistical triumph that every reporter or broadcaster can find their way to the scene of a world disaster within hours.

But – we expect it.

Why then, with travel vessels at their disposal (remember we’re talking about a tour operator here) do we not automatically see an appropriately briefed senior member of Thomson positioning themselves in Sousse to articulate both empathy and intentions to their affected customers, and the wider world?

To me, this was a communication failing and emphasised how all too often the corporate world finds itself spending many hundreds of thousands of pounds on proactive advertising, and yet has little in place for brand / reputation management.

It brings to mind the recent issues in which Thomas Cook was embroiled.

There again, a business which makes its money as a family-focused, ‘good-times’ brand, was seen to have been lacking in the ability to carefully manage its internal and external communications, while seemingly being guided by too much financial or legal influence.

This isn’t about a brow-beating exercise on Thomson, or on holiday-centred family brands.

To Thomson's credit, it did post a statement online in collaboration with First Choice, addressing what steps it was taking.

It did exactly the right thing in terms of crisis comms statement content, including

  • Expressing sympathy
  • Showing what they were doing
  • Issuing a contact
  • Emphasising the delivery of their internal workforce.

But it wasn’t enough.

Never should a brand leave their customers / clients / stakeholders having to dig their own way around news broadcasts and social media to find the latest on an incident directly involving them.

It should be no hardship, in the preservation of brand reputation, that a company should want to deploy the very best internal and external communication solutions.

This means right messaging, right timing, right intent, right visibility, and right representative.

A brand, as we see time and again with various incidences of corporate ‘falls from grace’, is not always judged by what HAPPENS to it, as much as how it RESPONDS to what happens.

This, now, is the ultimate test for the tour operators both here in the case of our latest world tragedy, and equally to all those looking to a future marketing and reputation management strategy.

If you want your clientele to trust you, respect you and remain loyal, you must consider every interaction of your brand and its people….. in bad times, just as in better times.

Deborah Watson is a PR and marketing consultant, specialising in corporate communications and crisis management. She tweets @DeborahWatsonPR

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