Communications, Law and Thomas Cook

22nd May 2015 by Mark Chamberlain

Following the heart-breaking deaths of Christi and Bobby Shepherd in Corfu nine years ago, could this finally be the end of a shameful episode of communications mismanagement at Thomas Cook?

Having publically stated that Thomas Cook had “done nothing wrong” and then far-too-late (only Wednesday this week) changing tack and saying “I am deeply sorry”, chief executive Peter Fankhauser has exposed either a shocking lack of communications insight and planning at Thomas Cook, or some structural flaw in the company which was preventing its communications people from being heard.

The bungled communications continued. Before yesterday afternoon the only video footage that had emerged of Fankhauser apologising was lifted from an analysts’ webcast presentation of the company’s financial results. Could they not have found a platform that was a little more benevolent, a little less focused on cold, hard business? Following this belated apology, Thomas Cook initially declined to allow any broadcast interviews with Fankhauser and there remained no truly open, senior-level channel of communication between the company and the public.

Finally, yesterday afternoon, it emerged that Fankhauser had met with Christi and Bobby’s parents and offered a financial gesture of goodwill. He was interviewed by the BBC and came across as genuinely remorseful, both for the terrible loss of life and for the way Thomas Cook has been handling the crisis ever since. The parents, it would seem, have now reached some sense of closure.

Why did it take so long for Thomas Cook to get it right?

It seems that the problem stemmed from the way in which legal and comms divisions at Thomas Cook have been integrated and balanced. It is quite clear that much of their positioning on this has been shaped in large part on the advice of their legal teams. This is understandable, but the focus on legal positioning at the expense of communications good practice is without doubt a significant part of the reason that Thomas Cook has found itself in such a reputational mess.

Communications and legal teams often find themselves at loggerheads. Communicators want to engage. They want to tell their stories in compelling and humanistic terms. Legal teams on the other hand would often rather you didn’t say anything at all, and when you do they are so concerned with the detail of the wording that the message often gets diluted or, worse, completely lost.

It must be true that everyone at Thomas Cook is and has been deeply sadden by the terrible passing of these two children, at least if they took a step back from their jobs for a few moments and really thought about it on a humanistic level. There is no other way to feel. What is such a shame from a communications perspective is that until yesterday no one was allowed to come forward and publically express this view. A well-established rule in corporate crisis management is to communicate liberally, but for so long Thomas Cook were not doing this.

There may have been concerns that Fankhauser lacked the necessary media skills to openly engage with the media on such a difficult subject. However, by allowing him to present himself as a man first and a corporate leader second, as he did yesterday, the sentiment that the public needed to hear came through effortlessly. Another established rule of crisis management is to use your top people to communicate, and it is a relief that Thomas Cook now look like they are going to do this.

Across the corporate spectrum, legal and comms teams need to do more to understand each other, plan together and work together. With a good comms team, a good legal team and, crucially, better integration of the two earlier on, much of the reputational trouble that Thomas Cook created for itself could have been prevented.