Separate the incident from the crisis

About the author

Chris is a lecturer, media trainer, crisis communication consultant and coach. Her in-house roles have included the global position of Director of PR for Barclays. Chris leads the CIPR PR Diploma and Crisis Comms Diplomas. BA Hons, CAM, MCIPR

The reputation crisis now facing Thomas Cook has been described by one onlooker as like a slow motion train crash. I doubt it feels like that to insiders at the company who probably feel that the crisis has moved at great speed and in an entirely unpredictable way. But that’s the problem if you do not take a strategic view of crisis management.

The tragic death of two small children is the worst kind of nightmare and it is impossible to imagine the anguish of the children’s parents and carers. Of course, this should have been the starting point for Thomas Cook’s response to what had happened. Andrew Griffin in his new book on crisis management quotes a senior executive at Total, the French energy giant praised for its handling of a gas leak in 2012: “to take care of reputation, you have to take care of people …. first.” Organisations dealing with crises should view at all times what is happening through the lens of the victims.

If Thomas Cook had taken such advice they would have understood that what victims want to hear first and foremost is an apology from the organisation they hold responsible.   Thomas Cook have got across what we can assume is a message around the company being misled by the hotel in Corfu about its gas supply but how does this help when a court has found the company has breached its duty of care? If they were advised by a lawyer not to say sorry so on the back of an attempt to shift blame then that is a failure of management not to do what is obviously the right thing.

More importantly the family of the two children who died, Christi and Bobby, (and I suspect pretty much everybody else) holds Thomas Cook responsible for failing to ensure the safety of the accommodation they provided to their guests. The crisis narrative is quite predictable: if there is a victim there must be a villain and it will be the one best known to the public. BP discovered this with Deepwater Horizon back in 2010 when they attempted to blame the rig owner with their infamous first press release on the disaster: “BP can confirm that Transocean today issued the following press release.”

Finally, what is happening at Thomas Cook is a strategic failure on the part of management to separate out the incident from the crisis. Of course, the facts and details about how what happened are important and we all hope Thomas Cook are looking to see they cannot be ‘misled’ again by the hotels they choose to put their guests in. But the crisis now for the company is one of a breached promise for safe, fun family holidays. That is the true value behind the Thomas Cook brand and that is why the share price has taken such a knock. It is a reputation that was earned over many years but its future now, with rumours of a consumer boycott, is on a knife-edge.”

You may also like Chris’s blog from a while back on the relationship between PR and the lawyers and how we need to learn to get along in a crisis.