By Steve Dunne, executive chairman of travel PR specialist The Brighter Group
The Institute of Travel Tourism (ITT) conference this week witnessed the re-emergence of Thomas Cook from a public relations stance – or at least a new look Thomas Cook.
Gone was the arrogance and aloofness that, it could be argued, was a hallmark of Thomas Cook’s PR machine in recent years. In its place was a humble, honest and open approach.
Battered and bruised as the company is after 18 months of almost constant negative media coverage, it was a brave move by Ian Ailles, Thomas Cook UK mainstream chief executive, to stand in front of his industry peers and talk about the future.
It was doubly brave in light of the polished and impressive performance the day before by rival Johan Lundgren, the Tui Travel deputy chief executive. If the Twitter activity following Lundgren’s interview was anything to go by, the Tui chief was deemed to be a polished performer representing the undisputed heavyweight champion of the outbound industry.
To a casual observer it may have seemed a less than captivating presentation by Ailles. After all, a speaker standing rigidly behind a podium, reading straight from a script without slides or any other presentational prop is not a style that ordinarily wins over an audience.
However, for me this was what made the Thomas Cook session at ITT so special. What Ailles had to say was significant, well thought out and powerful; to have it delivered in a way that could almost be described as humble should pay dividends with the media, opinion formers and the wider industry.
In the Q&A that followed I was again struck by the openness and honesty of Ailles. There was nothing too cocky in terms of aspiration. Ailles acknowledged mistakes had been made, but buried just below the surface of his speech he made reference to the secret weapon of the UK number two.
For Thomas Cook has something Tui Travel has not, something I suspect those at Tui would bite their own arm off for – a worldwide, well-known and, yes, trusted brand name with 170 years of heritage in the bank.
Cook’s new group chief executive, Harriet Green, is coming into a company that, while weakened in image and reputation, has an inherent strength that a good PR machine, under the direction of a visionary leader, can build upon.
I suspect, even as I write, that the Tui board of directors will be poring over the transcript of Ian Ailles speech and, if they’re not, they should be. For a humbled rival with a powerful brand name and a desire to reconnect with its heartland is dangerous.
For the rest of us – we should quietly applaud the new PR approach shown by Ian Ailles. We need a strong brand to take on the might of Tui, and who better than Thomas Cook?
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