20th May 2015

What Can We Learn from Thomas Cook and the Corfu Tragedy?

Anyone following the news agenda will, no doubt, be aware of the ruling of the UK inquest into the tragic deaths by carbon monoxide poisoning of two British schoolchildren in a hotel chalet on the Greek island of Corfu nine years ago. Jurors concluded that Thomas Cook had “breached its duty of care” in not identifying the chalet’s faulty boiler earlier, and returned a verdict of unlawful killing.

The events in Corfu were truly devastating for the family of the victims, Bobby and Christi Shepherd, and they have had significant repercussions for Thomas Cook’s reputation as well, both in the eyes of consumers and business partners. Many commentators believe the global travel brand has mismanaged the tragedy. It has been accused of a host of communications errors, from the “wall of silence” it maintained in the face of questions from the media, to the much delayed apology to the Shepherd family. This culminated in this week’s donation to charity of half of the £3 million compensation it received from the hotel’s owners after the 2010 Greek criminal case – five years after it was first awarded.

So what can we learn from Thomas Cook’s criticised communications strategy, and how can brands caught in similar situations ensure they don’t make the same mistakes?

Don’t clam up

When handling a crisis, it’s imperative that brands stay open and transparent in the eyes of the media, consumers and other stakeholders. Failure to do so can give the impression that they have something to hide or that they are obstructing the investigation – neither of which might be the case.

With this in mind, brands should do their best to respond to any questions journalists may have. If a question can’t be answered due to the sensitive nature of the investigation, or legal restrictions, then they should explain why, so that journalists get as full a picture as possible.

Think about the consequences

In the middle of a crisis, organisations should think very carefully about the consequences of every action. In the case of Thomas Cook winning damages after the 2010 criminal trial, timing was everything. The brand may have done the right thing in donating its compensation to charity, but it took this step five years too late.

Brands should talk to dedicated crisis communications experts to help them develop an effective and responsive communications strategy to handle such issues. This will mitigate any potential media fall-out and limit damage to their image.  The communication skills required to handle a crisis, especially one of this magnitude, are often not held within a company’s day to day communications team and it’s therefore money well spent to bring in the experts to avoid lasting reputational harm.

Know when to apologise

Above all it is imperative to know when and how to apologise to the victim and their family, as failure to do so can make brands seem unsympathetic and arrogant.

Apologising is tricky in the middle of an investigation, as it can be seen as an admission of responsibility, leading to potential legal ramifications. However, it is possible to express sorrow at a tragic turn of events and offer condolences to the family without admitting culpability, which can give a brand a human face and help establish it as a business that cares about its customers.

Talking to their crisis experts and legal teams will help brands work out both when and how to apologise most effectively.

Get support

The public and media backlash of such cases can be irreparable so careful and effective handling is essential. Crisis communications experts can develop an appropriate campaign strategy to rehabilitate the brand’s reputation once the crisis has passed, enabling them to bounce back in the eyes of customers and stakeholders.

Accidents and tragedies do happen, but it is possible to weather the storm with minimal impact on brand image. Above all, what is needed is a comprehensive plan of action, and a team of communications experts willing to engage with stakeholders.

By Michael Wood, senior B2B copy writer