The good thing about having extensive media coverage of big companies is that they can provide lessons in what to do and what not to do – a play-by-play of where communications strategies can spiral quickly off track. It provides useful guidance for other businesses, both big and small.
Communications strategy is a vital element to both sustained reputation and brand longevity, and businesses should have it in mind as an ongoing concern – regularly reviewed and refreshed. Bigger companies may have more complex systems in place, with more emphasis on crisis comms, but it’s evident that a lot of the time they don’t get it right either.
Two widely discussed recent examples provide contrasting ways of dealing with company mistakes. The drawn-out Thomas Cook situation has stirred up extensive criticism. It’s an extreme example – two children died from carbon monoxide while on holiday with their father and his partner in 2006, and the conclusion of the inquest recently threw it back in the public eye. Thomas Cook was cleared of responsibility at a Greek criminal trial in 2010 and the inquest accepted it had been misled by the hotel involved, though it concluded Thomas Cook’s health and safety audit had been inadequate.
What stoked the public’s anger was the notable absence of an apology to the bereaved parents, along with the discovery that the travel company had received over £1m in compensation from the owner of the Corfu hotel, Louis Group. After that announcement was made, the travel firm said it had donated the £1.5m received to children’s organisation Unicef, stressing that the company hadn’t profited.
By that point however, the public was already feeling less than sympathetic. In a highly delicate situation, it was a case where Thomas Cook felt it had to toe the line – following guidance from lawyers and management in terms of how best to proceed.
At the same time, when a case like this hits public attention, a company’s reputation can be severely hampered by a perceived lack of care – particularly from those at the top. It’s tricky enough for senior management to maintain the balance of asserting their position as the spearhead figure leading a company, while leaving their door open so employees and clients see their ability to be aware and understanding too. Peter Fankhauser, CEO at Thomas Cook from November 2014, had told the inquest jury: “I feel so thoroughly, from the deepest of my heart, sorry, but there’s no need to apologise because there was no wrongdoing by Thomas Cook.”
It’s the veering on defensive that the public often react badly too – and indeed, the children’s mother said the company should have apologised at the inquest. A letter of apology from Fankhauser lost its value when the first the parents heard about it was via reporters. They said in a statement: “We haven’t had this so called letter of apology. It’s not an apology for their wrongdoing but a general offer of sympathy. It does not address the central issue that their Safety Management System failed and it does not apologise for that.”
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