It always shocks me that companies such as Thomas Cook, caught in the middle of a very emotive issue such as the death of two children, could fail to properly consider the reputational issues, or perhaps mis-judge them completely. Whilst I understand that, in initially avoiding saying sorry, Thomas Cook considered that they had nothing to be (legally speaking) sorry for, it was always going to be the case - especially in light of their £3 million claim against the third party hotel - that the public would expect them to say sorry, and not to be seen to be benefiting financially from their customers' tragic misfortune.
I am not privy to the detail of what went on behind the scenes at Thomas Cook, but one could imagine that, in such situations, there might be tensions between lawyers and communications professionals. Legal teams, perhaps understandably, might be reticent to encourage a CEO to apologise for fear of admitting liability. But surely it is the role of the communications team to be the moral conscience of the company at this time - or perhaps to ensure that the company's humanity and emotional intelligence is not drowned out in such circumstances?
Most communications professionals, I imagine, might be able to craft the 'sorry' message in such a way that the lawyers could be partially satisfied, thereby ensuring the company's reputation and credibility are not damaged by being seen to be heartless and out-of-touch with public opinion. Trying to apologise later, as Thomas Cook CEO Peter Fankhauser did, will always look like a begrudging afterthought in order to salvage badly damaged reputation.
As The Independent newspaper commented:
"If he had any conscience Mr Fankhauser should resign. Nine long years after a faulty boiler in a hotel in Corfu devastated this family on holiday, he decided that a shareholders’ meeting was an appropriate occasion to offer his condolences before meeting the family."
A good crisis or issues plan will get you only part of the way. And so the key must be that the communications team - and hopefully its communications director, with a seat at the Board table - must have the gravitas and credibility to exert influence with the CEO and Board in such situations. Such influence, of course, is not won in the middle of a crisis.
The hard-thinking and debate must happen in advance - perhaps as part of a crisis communications plan, if not more generally - as this is a debate which should drive right to the very heart of company strategy and core values.
Published 4 July 2015