Thomas Cook mea culpa is a start…

By Nick Wright, 24 November 2015

All credit to Thomas Cook for commissioning an independent report led by Justin King in July 2015 following the reputational debacle surrounding the inquest into the deaths of Robert and Christi Shepherd from carbon monoxide poisoning in 2006.

The report, published today and available via Thomas Cook’s website will not, on its own, restore its reputation overnight, not least in the way it lays bare weaknesses still present in the Group some nine years after the event.  But it’s a start…

From a communications perspective, I was struck by two separate strands that reinforce the crucial role communicators play:

1. The relationship between the lawyers and the communicators

It is clear that the former held undue sway following the tragic event. Take the inquest itself and a quote from a barrister – “My clients would like to know whether you want to apologise to them.” TC representative – “I decline to answer that.” The media were scathing, with Jim Armitage in the London Evening Standard, post-inquest, describing the “company’s gruesomely legalistic stance” which “had been in train for years”. The report itself confirms this view:

…it is clear, in my view, and should be noted that the legal backdrop to the case weighed heavily on the decision making of the company. Decisions were often not taken in the thoughtful and caring way you would expect from a company such as Thomas Cook. This situation persisted for almost 9 years and involved 3 permanent CEOs.

The fact that this tragic situation spanned almost 9 years is testimony to how much the legal, rather than the human considerations dominated the landscape.

For communicators the relationship we forge (or not as the case may be) with the lawyers in ‘crisis’ situations is critical. It’s all too easy to accept the stereotypes, adopt an adversarial tone and conclude that lawyers simply just don’t ‘get’ communications (while they in return will deride us as superficial PR people), but in this case something went seriously awry. Yes, the leaders of the business who should have known instinctively what was the ‘right thing’ to do have a case to answer, but it’s important in these type of situations the communicators case is heard and we are confident and bold in giving best advice (this, of course, may have been the case, but the advice may have simply been ignored).

2. The ‘e’ word

We’re all familiar with ‘engagement’; its enduring use, whether in the context of customer, employee or stakeholder, is testament to its established role in the communications vocabulary. But I noted another ‘e’ word as part of the first key theme in the report; an ‘e’ word which had significant provenance some 15 years or so ago but which has somewhat fallen from favour in the intervening period. And that word is ‘empowerment’.

In the report empowerment and reward are closely linked:

There is a mismatch across the business between the accountabilities people have, and empowerment to deliver against these. This failure is both structural and cultural. Reward mechanisms, on the whole reinforce this mismatch. They should reflect and enhance the empowerment needed.

How often do we hear the mantra that those on the front-line should be given the freedom and responsibility to do what is best for the customer…and yet, when push comes to shove, find that one, if not both hands are tied behind the back when it comes to meaningful action?

In this case the spectre of the legalistic culture once again looms large – a belief that customer expectations are unreasonable when things go wrong and that 25% of complaints are resolved only after some sort of legal process.  As the report points out:

It is the responsibility of the company to respond to problems in a way that delights, not frustrates. Then the law would be irrelevant and social media positive.

Media coverage of the report is not kind to Thomas Cook – “profit before people” and “profound management malaise” are just two examples of current headlines. But will this act as a turning point in which real and substantive operational change is accompanied by positive cultural and behavioural change? Let’s hope so.

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