A Tale of Two Crises

Published by - 12/06/2015

Recent crises at Thomas Cook and Alton Towers have shown the importance of good PR.  Their reputations are poles apart because while one got it right, the other got it horribly wrong. 

The crash on Alton Towers’ Smiler rollercoaster was a terrible accident. But the reaction of the theme park’s owners Merlin Entertainments was exemplary. By closing not only Alton Towers but also rides at other parks so they could be checked, they clearly put safety first.

Merlin’s chief executive Nick Varney made himself available to the media and didn’t shy away from calling the accident “dreadful” – which is exactly what the rest of us were thinking. The company also provided support for the victims and their families and made it clear that they will receive compensation. Meanwhile, Alton Towers staff have undergone fresh training.

The overriding impression is of a company which cares – which thinks more about the safety of people who visit Alton Towers, than about the money they spend while they’re there. The business showed a human face.

The same cannot be said of Thomas Cook. Their handling of the deaths of two children from carbon monoxide in Corfu can only be described as a complete disaster.

For years the company failed to give a sincere apology. A former executive refused to answer questions at the inquest for fear of incriminating the business. Then it emerged the firm had received more than £1m compensation from the hotel chain involved.

The public outcry was fierce, especially on social media. Thomas Cook lost complete control and were forced into fire-fighting mode. But because public opinion was already set, giving the compensation money and a former boss’s bonus to charity was seen for what it was – a rather desperate attempt to restore a battered reputation.

Too little, too late. Some people have said they will never book a Thomas Cook holiday again. A classic case of building a brand over decades, only for it to be suffer serious damage virtually overnight.

Thomas Cook’s big mistake was thinking and acting only as a corporation. In considering the legal and financial risks, its leaders did not give equal weight to the implications for its reputation. The irony is that in doing so, the company will probably suffer far more long term financial loss as a result.

The moral of this story? Good PR people are the conscience of an organisation. In times of crisis, listen to them carefully. They will tell you how your words and actions will be viewed by those who really matter – your customers.