The tragic case of the two children killed by a faulty gas boiler on a Thomas Cook holiday is a classic example of a corporate (as well as personal) crisis that’s been hugely magnified by being handled abysmally.

Deeply sorry

Thomas Cook’s CEO, Peter Fankhauser, said publicly today that he’s ‘deeply sorry’ for what happened.

You could say it’s good that he’s apologised. But it’s incredible it’s taken him nine years to do so – prompted by last week’s inquest ruling that Thomas Cook ‘breached its duty of care’.

It feels unbelievable that he said only last week that the company ‘had nothing to apologise for.’ And that he’s only now saying he’ll communicate directly with the family and intends to meet them later this week.

And it’s astounding that he wrote an apology letter to the bereaved parents last week but they were first shown a copy by Mail on Sunday reporters. Why did Thomas Cook send such a sensitive private letter to the media at all, let alone first?

It’s also unsettling to hear the company quietly received £3.5 million compensation from the hotel concerned, while the parents’ seven-year legal battle got them a tenth of that. (Thomas Cook says it’s now given half its sum to charity.)

Given all this, it’s no surprise people are calling for the company to be blacklisted. The Boycott Thomas Cook Facebook page has 8,000 followers (rising by the minute) and the company is being trashed all over Twitter.

It will doubtless take years for the company’s reputation to recover, if it survives this at all.

 

Too little, too late

This is clearly a disastrous case of too little, too late in terms of crisis response. Whatever Fankhauser says and does now can have limited positive impact as so much reputational damage has already been done.

I suspect that a large part of the problem has been down to unquestioningly following hard-nosed lawyers’ advice until now.

Surely if Thomas Cook’s board had embraced simple human compassion – and been focused as much on its reputation as a decent company as its legal liabilities – it would have acted very differently?

Legal advice is vital in a time of corporate crisis, but it must never be followed in blind isolation. There are always ways of protecting your position, if need be, and presenting a considerate, human face.

This is a point Fankhauser rightly acknowledged today – albeit far too late and with massive understatement:

‘I don’t want to blame the lawyers. It’s ultimately my responsibility how we communicate. Obviously we could have done better.’