Analysis: Could Cook have handled it better?

Analysis: Could Cook have handled it better?

Thomas Cook stands accused of a heartless response to the deaths of two children in Corfu. Ian Taylor reports

The inquest into the deaths of two children from carbon monoxide poisoning on a Thomas Cook holiday in Corfu in 2006 ended with a verdict of “unlawful killing” last week.

Unfortunately, the judgment that matters to Thomas Cook is the one that followed in the court of public opinion.

The verdict was expected given a criminal trial in Greece in 2010 ended with the conviction for manslaughter of three employees of the Louis Corcyra Beach Hotel where Christianne Shepherd, who was seven, and her six-year-old brother Robert died. The Greek investigation cleared Cook’s employees of any wrongdoing.

No verdict could ease the pain for parents Neil Shepherd and Sharon Wood, who said they would “always hold Thomas Cook responsible”. But Cook’s current difficulties appear to stem from taking an overly legal approach to the tragedy.

The company was condemned this week by the Mail on Sunday, which reported Cook received a £3.5 million payout from hotel owner Louis Group. The newspaper contrasted this with the £350,000 compensation paid to each parent and quoted Sharon Wood: “This has never been about the money . . . But it incenses us that Thomas Cook quietly set about claiming back its costs.”

In fact, Cook received £3 million, half of which went to its insurer.

The company noted: “The civil claim was settled by the hotel on behalf of all claimants as the hotel was found to be at fault. We were not part of the process, negotiations or final settlement.”

It didn’t matter. It was too late.The parents dismissed a letter of condolence from Thomas Cook chief executive Peter Fankhauser as a “public relations ploy”.

Silent witnesses

The inquest in Wakefield saw a succession of senior Cook representatives, including former boss Manny Fontenla-Novoa, decline to answer questions.

They acted on legal advice, but it made a dreadful impression and it would have helped for someone to explain. The Cook employees had been questioned under caution during a police investigation. The police and Crown Prosecution Service decided to bring no charges but declined requests from Cook’s lawyers to put this in writing.

As a consequence, those cautioned were advised to say nothing. The coroner knew this, but the repeated questions had an obvious effect.

Fankhauser also drew criticism for declining to apologise to the parents in court. This was clumsy at best, though lawyers expressed surprise that Fankhauser was called since he could not help the inquest in its purpose to ascertain how the children died.

Evidence heard at the Greek trial was excluded from the inquest and, having returned an “unlawful killing” verdict, the coroners’ court could not legally assign responsibility – leaving the question open despite the hotel manager, maintenance manager and boiler maintenance engineer being found guilty in Greece.

Criminal errors

The deaths resulted from a catalogue of criminal errors. The Greek trial found the boiler which killed the children had been badly installed and maintained. It was in an outhouse and next to an air conditioning inflow. The inflow carried carbon monoxide from the boiler into the bungalow of the Shepherd children. The boiler should still have been safe because it was fitted with a carbon monoxide sensor and cut-out. However, hotel staff had responded to complaints of no hot water by disabling the device.

The Greek trial found the hotel had misled Cook about the presence of a gas appliance. Operators, including Cook, subsequently updated their code of practice to reflect the fact that properties may have external boilers.

The coroner indicated he would make recommendations. These could include a requirement that properties equip rooms with carbon monoxide detectors and the need for pan-European rules on gas safety. Thomas Cook said it would support such moves – though most hotel rooms served by central hot water systems would not require detectors.

Sadly, none of this will bring back Christianne and Robert, and Thomas Cook could face a long haul to restore its reputation.

A marketer’s perspective

“Thomas Cook chose to listen to its legal people. Lawyers always tell you: ‘Say nothing, admit nothing.’ Legally that is probably good counsel. Reputationally, it is reckless.

“It made Thomas Cook look heartless. This could set Cook’s reputation back decades. The key lesson is to listen as much to your PR advisers as your legal team. The ripple effect could damage the industry’s reputation.” - Steve Dunne, Brighter group

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