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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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.

Horses for Courses

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Well done the Creation Trust based in Aylesbury for their clever use of text messaging ( See Guardian article here ).

One of the big temptations in the communications business is to be drawn to the latest, most shiny toys to get your message across. Yet often the old ways are the best.

In this case the Creation Trust used text messaging to promote their work with great success, a positive result they would not have obtained had they used other channels like Twitter or Pinterest perhaps.

Communication is all about understanding who you are trying to reach. Understanding your publics is not however just about shaping the messages, it’s also about identifying how to reach them. Often the old ways are the best and we can even extend this back to the tools we used before the digital wave broke over the industry. Events, face to face contact, leaflets and media work all still have a role to play. Certainly they may be used alongside digital tools, but it is the focus on the audience driving the mix of channels that is important.

Some of my chums in PR think I’m a dinosaur when I question their automatic focus on digital tools when formulating a communications strategy. It’s not that I am against the new tools we have at our disposal, but that I question whether they are always suitable for the target publics. We have choices and our choices should be based on who we are trying to reach, not what we enjoy or are excited by.

Horses for courses.

Five a day – Fibs or Fitness?

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I came across this article today on the BBC web site about the “Five a day” healthy eating campaign which has been running in the UK since the 1980’s and it’s prompted me to offer some thoughts.

Apart from making me feel quite guilty about my Christmas and New Year eating the article reminded me about this classic health promotion campaign, with it’s simple, easy to follow mantra that eating five portions of fruit or veg a day is the secret to good health. What interested me in particular about the article though is it exposes the space between the people who know stuff, and the people who communicate it.

Looking at the background to the campaign it’s clear that there is actually little evidence for it’s core strap line. There can be no doubt that eating more fruit and veg is good for you, and the campaign was and is a positive influence within society, but there is a gap between this and the specific “Five a Day” statement.

Why not four, why not six (one response from a Canadian reader on the BBC web site says it is five to ten portions recommended each day). The answer is, of course from a PR point of view, that the language has to be simple and memorable and it’s specific detail is not important as long as it covers the essence of the message.

Yet when a message carries with it a suggestion of a scientific basis I believe this can become an issue , and part of the Five a day campaign’s history has, almost from the start, been an undercurrent of questioning it’s validity.

What is a portion? What constitutes fruit and veg? Does preparation have a bearing? Now, perhaps the very act of asking these questions achieves the campaign’s aim to make us more aware of the importance of what we eat on our health, but as far as advice or guidance is concerned it leaves much to be desired.

All in all, a classic health promotion campaign and an interesting article from the BBC about it, and one that prompts real consideration as to how important the interface between science and PR is.

Taking the rap.

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I feel a bit bad rating the BBC’s handling of the Jimmy Saville allegations a miss – because I’ve been there and know how hard it is, as a corporate body, to take the rap for the behaviour of an individual employed by you.

Loyalty between an organisation and its staff, and staff to an organisation is a laudable trait – but it has a dark side for people working in PR tasked with protecting an organisation’s reputation.

The gradual shift of approach by the BBC in response to allegations about Jimmy Saville reflects many an organisation’s reaction to a member of staff being the focus of criticism, not about their corporate behaviour (ie their actual work on behalf of the organisation), but their personal behaviour.

The initial response is to protect the individual (in the BBC’s case an individual with a high public profile and massive public appeal who had been an employee for decades), this protection becoming more and more difficult and strained as more information emerges (as it always does in crisis situations) until they have to respond with a commitment to investigate.

Of course by then the damage has been done, the corporate body has been seen to be slow / reluctant to act and therefore becomes implicated in the story – a passive accomplice to the personal actions of the individual.

Now, clearly in the case of the BBC there are other issues – some of the allegations are said to revolve around activity carried out on BBC premises and with other BBC staff “in the know” – but the general pattern of response is a common one.

Organisations do not like to turn on their own.

Yet people who care about organisational reputation need to be able to push the pace of response, and have to be prepared to cut individuals loose early on if necessary. The truth is no organisation sets out to have staff doing the kind of things Jimmy Saville is accused of, and the organisation’s trust in him as an employee has been betrayed. In reputational terms the organisation becomes another victim.

When an allegation like the Jimmy Saville stories breaks it’s like a bottle of ink being knocked over – the stain spreads quickly and over a wide area if it isn’t blotted up at once.

What the BBC are saying now, some three to four days after the story broke, is correct – it’s a Police matter first and after they have investigated the BBC will look at their own failings. It appears as though  they have now “cut loose” Sir Jimmy.

The problem is, the stain has already spread, and there will be an awful lot of people wanting to look into a great many areas of the organisation to see how deeply tainted they are.

As always speed is of the essence in crisis comms – but it’s not just communication response time that matters in these kind of issues. It’s the will to act, and act quickly against individuals who threaten your corporate reputation, distancing the body corporate from their personal behaviour and acts that really matters.

Sorry should never be the hardest word

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The apology, 50 years after the event by German pharmaceutical company Gruenenthal to the people affected by its Thalidomide drug in the 1960s should act as a lesson to any company dealing with the consequences of corporate mistakes.

See – http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-19448046

When I am counselling clients about corporate crisis situations I recommend, that if there are victims of their corporate mistakes, they apologise as soon as possible – to fail to do this leaves a stain on the corporate reputation which will always be pointed out.

The way I like to describe this is to imagine you are walking through a bar and you accidentally knock someone’s glass of wine over, covering them in house red. What would you do?

Our natural human response is to first apologise (and probably say what a clutz you were for brushing against their glass) and then probably offer to buy another glass and , if the spillage was bad, to pay for dry cleaning.

What you would not do is walk away without a word, intending to write to them in a few weeks time.

Think how you would now feel as the diner sat wearing that glass of red if someone knocked over your drink and walked off without a word –  it’s just asking for a fight to start isn’t it?

So why do corporations act so differently? Is it that they don’t value their reputation? Is it that they just don’t care as long as they are making money?

I don’t think so. Strong influences are certainly the lawyers with their “Say nothing, admit nothing and it will all go away” approach (thankfully less common now than in the 1960s), but I believe there are more human forces at work.

Caught in the storm of a corporate crisis the behaviour of senior executives changes – shock, fear, confusion bear down on their thought processes making basic human responses (like apologising) difficult.

So 50 years on Gruenenthal say sorry – no doubt a difficult thing for Harald Stock, Gruenenthal’s chief executive to do – but it’s something which should have been said 50 years ago but was just too hard. Senior executives need to remember that whilst they are human, with all the weaknesses and frailties, so are the people their actions affect.

Think PR before calling in the lawyers

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The story about Minster Caroline Spelman’s son being caught taking banned substances shows what can happen to a story when Legal advice overcomes PR sense – see BBC news web story.

Clearly concerned that the story would take off in the media because he is the son of a government Minister it appears the first course of action in managing this situation was to call in the Lawyers and get an injunction. However the very fact an injunction had been sought made the story even more news-worthy.

It’s not as though Spelman junior had been doing crack cocaine or anything – he was merely misguided in taking steroids to help him recover more quickly so he could return to his rugby. So why be so sensitive about the story?

Surely the most sensible response would have been to openly admit what he had done, take the sanction from the RFU (Rugby’s governing body) and explain it as a youthful misjudgment.

As it is, the involvement of Lawyers and first recourse to a super injunction leaves people feeling the Spelman’s have tried to use their power and influence to keep the story suppressed.

The moral is don’t forget the PR implications of your decisions, and what might feel safest (getting the Lawyers involved) may not be the best thing for your reputation.

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