How Center Parcs found itself lodged in a PR nightmare
At times like these following the death of The Queen, PR teams can provide invaluable counsel to the C-suite. Exclude them at your peril, writes comms sage Andy Barr – unless you want to end up in the same mess as Center Parcs.
Center Parcs has found itself in the midst of a PR crisis / Center Parcs
The week has been like nothing that any modern-day public relations practitioner will have ever experienced. In extreme times, it is easy for a brand to accidentally stumble into a communications disaster and, just as many who are senior operators in our industry have lobbied for in years gone by, it is important that strategic communicators are part of the C-suite decision-making process. We can only presume that in Center Parcs’ case, around its decision to close on the day of The Queen’s funeral and evict guests, no one listened to the PR team.
The Queen’s passing has built a gradual boil of sadness, along with a national feeling of being lost and overall general confusion; and it has now spilled over into anger and rage with Center Parcs being the brand in the firing line. It could have been Thomas Cook, Playmobil or any number of other brands that got their generally heartfelt messaging around the monarch’s passing wrong, but it was Center Parcs that tipped everyone over the edge.
I’d imagine the chief exec of Center Parcs is looking at the fallout and wondering how what they thought would be a great gesture for staff could have gone so horribly wrong. Let’s not lose sight of the fact that there would have been no malice, ill-intent or financial gain from the original decision; the C-suite just felt it was the right thing to do.
I am guessing that the same C-suite either ignored the advice of its communications team or, even worse, never even consulted them during the decision-making process. In my formative years of working in the comms sector, I was told by a very wise boss that our job was to hold a mirror up to the organization we represent in order to make sure that the decisions being made would play out with our public as was intended.
Fast forward to just minutes after the Center Parcs decision was made and instead of being able to celebrate a job well done, the company was instead firing up its crisis communications playbook and going into survival mode. It doesn’t help that Center Parcs represents the very embodiment of the middle-class target audience that so many media titles themselves are chasing as readers. As such, it was a hot story that everyone could jump on.
This meant that the social media outrage was dialed up to a level that I don’t think I have seen before. It will be interesting to see what the data from social listening tools such as Talkwalker and Brandwatch report when all this calms down. It will make for a fascinating case study in social media crisis communications.
The only saving grace for Center Parcs is that when the company did finally listen to the comms team and the crisis communications plan was deployed, it was able to reverse the decision relatively swiftly and try to limit the damage. The reality is that this may well leave a longer-term brand reputation issue, but the actual product it has on offer is unrivaled in the UK and it will not slow bookings.
As it happens, I am writing this from the reception area of a conference that I am attending today where I was surprised to hear, during a talk on the role of communications in society, that some of the panelists with big-brand C-suite experience felt that the public relations industry has reputation and trust issues of its own. I think examples like Center Parcs this week prove it is not the comms people, but rather the C-suite overlords who make us communicate their bad decisions, despite our protests, that are the issue.
As a sector, we in the PR industry need to take note of what has happened this week and use it as further evidence that we need a seat at the board table to try and prevent situations like this from arising.
Andy Barr is the chief executive of PR firm 10 Yetis.