The reputation of family-friendly travel company Thomas Cook has plummeted due to the way it handled the appalling tragedy of two children’s deaths and the fact it took eight years for them to apologise.
Christi Shepherd, 7, and her six-year-old brother Bobby died from carbon monoxide poisoning from a faulty boiler while on a Thomas Cook holiday in Corfu in 2006.
As a mum of three, I can only imagine the horror and sadness for their parents and family, and have read the coverage with a heavy heart. The death of any child, in any circumstance, is awful.
Criticism of the PR, or lack or, has been rife, particularly across social media, with various industry experts expressing their opinions, I’ve linked to some of those articles at the end of this one.
I began my career as a journalist back in 1999 and experienced first-hand working alongside parents who have lost a child. I’ve sat in countless front rooms clutching photographs of their son or daughter and helping them think through how my tribute would read.
(If they would let me in their house – understandably many families don’t want to talk. “Death knocks” as they’re known in the trade, never get easier, and rightly so. You’re dealing with raw, human emotion and a fiercely private circumstance).
It was not unknown for me to then pull over after leaving their house and sit crying in my car as I processed the enormity of their story and the crushing sadness. I then ensured what I wrote reflected our conversations and was a tribute they could be proud of.
I’m not making any excuses for anyone involved in the Thomas Cook case, merely sharing this as an example of how when dealing with deaths and particularly grieving parents you have to be incredibly astute, sensitive, mindful and compassionate.
How you communicate, what you say and how you act is crucial (Tweet this).
How Thomas Cook communicates
With my comms professional hat on, I’ve been waiting and watching to see how Thomas Cook communicates. It’s been nothing short of disappointing – too little, too late. I’ve seen no evidence of sensitivity, mindfulness or compassion.
PR Week says: “Thomas Cook bears all the hallmarks of a company about to implode under the weight of public disgust.”
In article titled Thomas Cook mislays its moral compass, the Financial Times states: “The group was not directly responsible for the deaths. The hotel’s owner acknowledged its culpability and paid compensation to the children’s parents. Where Thomas Cook went wrong was in the extraordinarily tin-eared and heartless way it handled the case.”
All week I’ve kept an eye on Thomas Cook’s Twitter account and waited for them to make a statement. But it’s been awfully quiet, and actions now feel hollow.
The Independent newspaper reports it took 3129 days for the company to apologise to the family, an action CEO Peter Fankhauser says he regrets.
A criminal trial held in Greece back in 2010 cleared Thomas Cook of any responsibility and awarded the firm damages against the hotel’s owner. But an inquest jury ruled last week the children had been unlawfully killed and said the tour operator had “breached its duty of care”.
There has been much wrangling in the press this week after it was revealed the travel operator received a £3m payout from its insurers. This week the story has developed further and Thomas Cook has donated half its payout to children’s charity Unicef after its insurers took half the payout for legal costs.
Thomas Cook says donating the remainder to Unicef is “the right thing to do”.
Thomas Cook says sorry…
The Guardian newspaper reported this week how Christi and Bobby’s parents have paid tribute to their lawyer, Leslie Thomas QC, who they said had supported “the underdog in a fight against a corporate giant”.
Thomas said Thursday was the “first time in this tragedy that Thomas Cook have done the right thing … they listened to the heartbreaking accounts from my clients and heard how their company effectively destroyed their lives”.
He added: “Mr Fankhauser apologised to my clients face to face for all the mistakes he and his company made over the last nine years. He kept his word and gave a sincere and heartfelt apology.”
Thomas said the public, the media and those who tweeted and blogged about the case should take much of the credit for the company’s change of heart.
In a statement issued by Thomas Cook after the meeting, Fankhauser said: “I am so grateful for the opportunity to meet and listen to Sharon Wood and Neil Shepherd. Having heard what they have had to say today, my heart breaks for them. This is a meeting which should have happened when I first took over as chief executive in November and frankly something Thomas Cook should have done nine years ago.
“Following our meeting today we came to a mutual understanding which I hope will enable them to move on with their lives.”
You can watch his apology below:
Thomas Cook employees
My thoughts have turned to their 22,000 employees. How does it feel to work for a company that is embroiled in an incident like this and who your friends and family will have strong views about? How is Thomas Cook communicating internally?
Imagine you’re a Thomas Cook employee. This story is unfolding and developing. Constantly. What actions have been taken internally?
The external mood is not pretty. The hashtag #boycottThomasCook and Facebook page is gathering pace. Various logos have been recreated and shared – from Thomas Crook, to another c word I won’t be repeating here.
What’s the internal mood like?
The launch of the sunny heart
In 2013 I wrote two articles about how Thomas Cook communicated their rebrand internally, including an interview with their Head of Communications – Group Special Projects. At the time I was struck by the dedication, enthusiasm and pride displayed by employees.
I was writing about their move to a “sunny heart” logo and all that aimed to encompass.
It included values of: “Trust, Innovation and Personalisation: Inspiring Personal Journeys By the Trusted Pioneer in Global Travel.”
The phrase “Let’s Go” aimed to “simplify the new brand essence in just two, memorable words, representing the excitement, energy and values of Thomas Cook.”
Further reading about Thomas Cook via the All Things IC blog:
How can employees express their feelings? How can they feed back what they’re hearing or know what to say to customers, friends and family?
The Glassdoor profile for Thomas Cook was last updated on 14 May (if you’ve not come across Glassdoor before, you can read about it on my blog here: Seen what your employees are saying about you?).
Of the 65 employees who have written reviews about the company, 100% “approve of the CEO” Peter Fankhauser and there aren’t any negative comments relating to this tragedy.
The role of PR
Sarah Pinch, President of the Chartered Institute of Public Relations has written on the CIPR Conversation site about the case. She says: “Public Relations has a role to play. Starting with colleagues, support and providing a listening ear. I know in-house colleagues who wonder if Director of Communications and Counselling Services might not be a more apt title; I am inclined to agree.”
I got in touch with the Thomas Cook comms team today to see if they are able to share what they’ve been doing internally. I appreciate the sensitivities and press interest, so am fully expecting them not to want to, but it doesn’t stop me wondering about their internal comms.
The invitation still stands, even though this article is now live. I’m happy to update it if and when the team decide they do want to add to it.
When I wrote the Thomas Cook articles back in 2013, I collated what its employees were sharing on social media. They’ve been surprising quiet about this case.
This is an incredibly sad case and one which I hope is never repeated. There are definitely lessons to be learned, and I commend Bobby and Christi’s parents and family in their tireless fight for justice.
Further reading from comms pros about this case:
- Amanda Coleman, @amandacomms, Head of Comms for Greater Manchester Police: The importance of crisis communication
- Andy Barr, @10Yetis, writing in The Drum: “Right now, Thomas Cook is in a precarious corporate position. The company needs to learn from this and repair a reputation that is getting worse by the day in terms of media coverage.”
- Sarah Pinch, CIPR President: Public Relations can come into its own in a crisis.
- PR Week: Independent panel analyses the company’s handling of the tragedy.
Post author: Rachel Miller
First published on All Things IC blog 22 May 2015.
Picture credit: PA.