Too little , Too late Thomas Cook

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The saga of Thomas cook and the tragic deaths of two children due to carbon dioxide poisoning is, I think, going to be one we read about for years in PR text books and journals.

The Company’s handling of the event from day one has been a case study in how not to handle a corporate crisis. topped off today by an apology to the bereaved parents which is too little and too late.

The narrative created by the company from the start was wrong. By listening to the Lawyers and focussing on corporate culpability as the main factor in this case Thomas Cook rapidly developed the reputation as being a faceless corporate beast, uncaring and unresponsive. It seems as though the business totally forgot that without customers it cannot exist – and that a positive reputation is what brings in those very same customers.

The game of catch up they are now playing is fascinating to watch.

Yesterday Sky news reported that at least two Facebook pages have been created calling on people to boycott the firm, with a total of at least 5,000 ‘likes’ and that petitions have been started, either calling for a boycott or for the firm to “apologise properly”, on Change.org and 38degree.org.uk.

Overnight on Monday, the Times reported that at least £75m had been wiped off the value of the firm’s shares as worried investors dumped stock whilst monthly Google searches for “Thomas Cook” have dropped 18% compared with the same time last year, according to the Financial Times.

Today the Chief Executive Peter Frankhauser finally said “From the deepest of my heart I am sorry.” (see BBC story here) , something he had pointedly failed to say when asked in the Coroner’s court last week. Whether this was planned or not, the appearance is that the expression of remorse is prompted not by a corporate conscience finally kicking in , but by those financial indicators plummeting through the floor.

As with so much PR, at the heart of the issue is narrative.

Had the messaging been from the off that Thomas Cook stands alongside the bereaved parents, feels let down by suppliers who lied to them, will seek to do whatever is necessary to care for the family and ensure nothing like this happens again from day one, would they be where they are now, struggling to keep up with events.

Crisis management is about getting the narrative right from the off. Get it wrong and, like a set of dominoes knocking each other down, your organisation can find itself dealing with one unexpected outcome after another.

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Water water everywhere – but who has stopped to think?

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The floods across the UK which started before Christmas have had a devastating effect on those people and businesses hit by them. But who are the winners and who are the sinners in PR terms?

First of all the power companies. Friends who I know were without power over Christmas and the New Year say they felt some sympathy for the power companies, recognising the massive impact of high winds and floods on the infrastructure. What they could not understand was the slow response in terms of information – or worse still information about the return of power and compensation that changed from minute to minute. A classic example of the perfect storm (if you will excuse the pun) unprecedented weather affecting the business at a time when holidays impact on normal business operations anyway, and perhaps an indication in communications terms of a lack of pre-planning (always plan for the worst) and central control over messaging.

Next the Environment Agency. Here the work of the staff on the ground has been fantastic and their emergency communications function warning people of potential floods was a fine example of planned emergency communication. Where they did fail perhaps was at the very top.

Chair , Chris Smith, was notable by his absence on the ground until quite late on, especially in the South West where large areas of rural England have been affected.  Flooding is an incredibly personal tragedy. Early on he should have been advised to get down on the ground and be seen by the people affected and by the staff from the Agency responding. Leadership in times of crisis is not about management but about presence, and a figurehead showing direct awareness of the situation can convey a range of positives about an organisation.

Finally – and I never thought I would say this about a business I am not a fan of – but well done Tesco. The retailer has provided lorries to transport feed to farmers whose fields have been flooded and whose livestock are facing starvation. Working with farmers in drier areas of the country they have arranged to carry essential supplies of animal feed to those farmers whose livelihoods hang by a thread (read about it here) . For a business who has so often been criticised for the way it treats its farming suppliers this is a practical gesture with a strong message behind it. Quick thinking whoever at Tesco PR HQ had the idea.

Comic Relief not smiling over investments

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We’ve seen a big PR hic-cup, for Comic Relief today with the news that Panorama have discovered that it invests money in companies such as arms manufacturers as well as the  alcohol and tobacco industries. It’s an issue which highlights the need for Charities to understand the value of their reputation and that PR thinking has to enter every dimension of an organisation’s operation, not simply saved for its marketing output.

The revelation has attracted considerable media attention (see The Guardian, The Independent, BBC News ) most of which is critical and most of which will damage the reputation of one of the UKs most powerful charity fundraisers. Yet it seems no-one in this giant in the charity world appears to have seen this coming, despite the fact this very issue has been one which the sector has been dealing with for decades.

I personally recall discussions at one Charity I was involved with 20 years ago regarding where it’s funds should be invested and the very clear outcome being that it had to take an ethical approach if its reputation was to remain spotless. The returns might be lower than other open funds, but the risk to the relationship between the organisation and its existing and potential supporters outweighed the financial aspect.

What we understood then and what hasn’t changed today is that Charities trade on their name – how donors feel about them is essential, literally the difference between the hand going into the pocket or not. Surely someone in a charity working with projects in countries torn apart by war, providing support to people with drug and alcohol problems in the UK and schemes to support people with health issues must have seen the negative implications of being  investing in the very industries at the root of some of the issues it deals with?

The response too has been lack lustre – in an interview on the BBC the CEO of Comic Relief tried to place the blame on the Charity Commission’s guidelines on charity funds investment, clearly a prepared line to try and spread responsibility. Unfortunately the previous interviewee, a specialist in charity fund management and investment had already made it quite clear that Charities can invest in ethical schemes with lower returns when it is in line with their operational delivery.

Comic Relief are in a hole now and just about the only thing in their favour is that they have almost a year to dig themselves out before they once again ask the British public to put their hands in their pockets. By then they could have sorted out an ethical investment portfolio and/or they can hope that the public will have forgotten.

My advice would be to start shifting the money now and to do it in a very humble and public manner.

Plan for the worst – act for the best

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The dreadful accident in Glasgow last Friday in which a police helicopter has crashed into a crowded pub reminded me of the importance of contingency planning and the vital role PR has in the actual management of a situation.

An incident like this illustrates the pressure the media can bring to bear on the emergency services with on scene live coverage continuing more than three days after the accident happened and reminded me of a key lesson I learnt when I was the PR Manager at Rampton Hospital which was you can’t have too many trained spokespeople. Crisis PR is often overlooked by organisations because “It will never happen to us” yet even when it is recognised as a key element of the reputation management of an organisation it is often under-resourced.

In particular this incident shows that you need cover in depth for crisis media management – both to handle the volume of interest, and to deal with a protracted incident. One PRO couldn’t possibly handle the media interest an incident like this generates for an extended period of time, which is why for instance I suspect we saw a spokesperson for the Fire Brigades Union explaining what fire-fighters would be doing on the news last night rather than an official spokesperson for the Glasgow Fire Brigade.

The second issue is in the training spokespeople have. No-one can see into the future, so it’s impossible to foresee every single crisis we may encounter. Certainly I doubt whether anyone trained for a scenario involving a helicopter crashing onto the roof of a crowded city pub (though I have I admit used some pretty outrageous scenarios in my time!). Training needs to be able to take this into account and avoid corralling the spokespeople’s thinking too much in advance.

Flexibility therefore is essential in developing training scenarios. The aim should be to give spokespeople a clear understanding of the questions the media will want to ask in a time of crisis (seeing the world through a journalist’s eyes) and a set of skills which will allow them to develop a clear narrative that meets those needs, provides a truthful picture of what has, is and will happen, and finally that ensures the reputation of the organisation is protected and if possible enhanced by the way it is seen to respond.

Finally, what few looking in from the outside will realise is that PR in a crisis is as much a part of the management of the situation as any of the more obvious operational responses of an organisation. The media are hungry beasts with constant and voracious appetites. Left without guidance they are quite capable of getting in the way of the operational handling of a crisis, so it’s important to develop a way of working which recognises that the PR function has a huge practical impact on operations during the immediate aftermath of an incident when space, people and resources will be required for the handling of the incident.

Police see short term gains instead of long term advantage,

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I don’t often comment on political PR, but the “Plebgate” row made me think about the role of PR and the triumph of tactical thinking over strategic thinking.

“Plebgate” for those not in the know is an on-going scandal in the UK in which a government minister, Andrew Mitchell,  lost his job as a result of an incident with a police officer (he was alleged to have sworn at him and called him a Plb as he left a meeting a downing Street).

It seems now however that all was not quite as reported and that the situation was created and subsequently made worse by manipulation of the facts by Police officers in support of their wider campaign to attack the Government’s programme of cuts.

One important event leading to the minister’s departure was a meeting with three members of the Police Federation in his constituency after which they called for his sacking (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-24629610 ) .

It was this meeting that eventually led to the minister going,  that a Parliamentary Committee was examining today and emergence into the public domain of some interesting facts about the involvement of PR advisers.

Key to the Committee’s questions was clarification as to the aim of the meeting – it had been officially arranged as a “clear the air” session by the three Police Federation representatives with Mr Mitchell, yet the evidence today revealed that prior to their arrival the three police officers were accompanied by a PR adviser employed by the Police Federation who was liaising with the media to arrange interviews after the meeting. Such was the plan that the meeting was terminated at 5.45pm in time for them to meet the media in time for the evening news programmes – interviews in which they made it clear Mr Mitchell should go.

Why is this a MISS in PR terms? Well tactically they got it spot on – the bru-har-har they created  with their comments after the meeting, helped bring down the minister and there was massive coverage of what they said.

Unfortunately good PR is actually about achieving not just short term tactical gains but at achieving long term strategic success.

Andrew Mitchell had secretly recorded the meeting and it turns out what was actually said does not tally with the report given by the Police representatives in their highly critical media interviews afterwards. This has thrown considerable doubt on the integrity of the individuals, the Police Federation and the Force in general . One MP on the Committee stated that whilst he as at one point taking questions from  his constituents about Government cuts he was now dealing with questions about Police integrity instead.

So that PR adviser clearly helped manufacture a great deal of short term advantage – but that advantage has turned out to be a long term problem. It will be interesting to see what emerges should that PR adviser be invited to give evidence to the Commons Committee and how they refute the strong evidence that there was a conspiracy to bring down a minister even if it meant playing hard and fast with the truth.

I suspect a suit is being pressed  and an alibi being concocted as we speak.

The Biter Bit

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The BBC’s Panorama programme is in a terrible tizz this week, defending its use of covert filming in North Korea and the involvement of a group of students as cover. The story seems to revolve around the issue of the consent of the students to what was happening around them and the role of their University, The London School of Economics.

I’m sure there must be many PR people quietly smiling at Panorama’s predicament having been on the receiving end of their attention in the past.

I speak here from personal experience, and whilst scadenfreud is a rather dirty thought process I can’t help feeling the biter is now being bit. My own experience of Panorams was in relation to a programme in which the organisation I was PRO for wasn’t the main focus of their story, but a key associated player. It was clear that they had decided what the story was before they gathered the information and did their filming with my organisation, and that they were quite happy to play fast and free with some of the facts to make them fit their storyline.

Both this, and much of what has emerged during the Leveson enquiry has made me question the power balance that exists between the media and the corporate bodies they report on. The public image the media like to promote is that as journalists they are the guardians of truth, that they are in some way special and that only they can be trusted to act on behalf of society as a whole.

The breakdown in media standards we have seen emerge into the public glare over recent months has tainted this image and as a result the power balance, which has in fact been heavily weighted in the media’s favour, may be shifting as the moral highground they have claimed for so long sinks to the level of any corporate body or profession trying to get along in the world.

Perhaps at the very least some journalists are now recognising that picking fault is easy – getting it right in the first place can be very very hard.

Ambush tactics

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HIT for David Cameron

MISS for ITV This Morning Show

 

The Paedophile scandal tsunami sweeping Britain at the moment got close to getting out of hand this morning when Phillip Scofield (not someone known for his investigative reporting) ambushed the PM on his “This Morning” TV show on ITV with a list of names gathered from the internet of alleged paedophiles in the Conservative party (Story here.) The reputation of one was enhanced, the reputation of the other degraded.

Schofield asked Cameron if he would be speaking to the people named, and the PM responded with a warning about “a witch-hunt” driven by unsubstantiated rumours about party members past and present named on the internet.

First of all, David Cameron scores a hit for the way he dealt with this live TV ambush. His media skills were well up to the mark this morning. When something like this happens on live TV it’s hard to maintain composure and with an issue like this easy to respond in a populist manner, yet he rightly stuck to his line that any allegations need to be directed to the Police, and pointed out very firmly that there is a real danger in picking names off the internet which may be there without any basis whatsoever. As a result he appeared in control, capable of seeing the wider picture and offered a degree of gravitas lacking in the event itself.

Second I think this is a Miss in PR terms for ITV as not only did it make the presenter look rather poor in journalistic terms (no self respecting journalist would admit to taking information from the internet at face value) but the stunt of passing the paper to the PM over the table on live TV risked the names being seen opening up the potential for legal action by people potentially slandered. (The Telegraph blurred the paper to obscure the names when re-running the footage for this very reason, and the PM himself placed it face down on the table). Furthermore, just as New Labour shunned The Today programme on Radio 4, it would be no surprise to see “This Morning” getting the cold shoulder in future from the present government.

The issue of child abuse in institutional settings is clearly a serious one, but crass, opportunistic stunts like this do nothing to shed light on the matter, nor do they treat it with the seriousness it deserves.

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