Opinion: Cook crisis shows danger of short-term legal advice

Opinion: Cook crisis shows danger of short-term legal advice

Thomas Cook failed to appreciate how the public instinctively feels they should have handled the Corfu tragedy and inquest, says Steve Dunne, chairman of travel tourism PR and marketing consultancy Brighter Group

“No enemy is worse than bad advice”, goes the ancient Greek saying. And right now those words must be ringing hollowly through the offices of Thomas Cook’s headquarters.

From being a company celebrating overcoming its financial woes of recent years, and as a brand that most competitors looked to enviously for the goodwill that surrounded it, not to mention the worldwide brand awareness it enjoyed, Thomas Cook is now witnessing a sort of reputational freefall not seen in the travel industry for a generation or two.

The mistakes of the company in its handling of the deaths of two children in Corfu in 2006 have been well documented in recent days by experts and commentators alike.

Refusals to initially issue apologies and be seen to accept any level of responsibility created a perception in the mind of the public of a company that was heartless, uncaring and even callous.

The lack of a senior director touring the TV and radio studios at the weekend, to strike the humble pose the public expected, compounded the damage that the brand was inflicting upon itself.

The claim that the media got sight of the letter of apology to the family, before the family themselves had seen it, had jaws dropping across the land, while the news of the media discovering that Thomas Cook had received compensation in the first place and then the slow pace of the company donating it to charity was like watching a slow motion car crash. 

The reputation of Thomas Cook has very probably been set back decades as a result and will make the brand look back at the halcyon days of a few financial issues with a sense of nostalgia.

But for me there is a very real lesson to be learnt here for every single chief executive, managing director and business owner in the travel industry.

For I believe that the Thomas Cook chiefs did what most company bosses would have done in this situation – they listened to their legal advisors, which of course is what they should do.

However, from my experience of crisis management I have always found that often the legal advisors and the PR advisors sit on different ends of the spectrum and as such offer different types of advice.

Lawyers live in a very black and white world. In my experience their advice in a crisis has often been to tell the client to: “say nothing, express nothing that could be construed as admitting liability in any way; and don’t, if you can avoid it, speak to the media”.

As legal advice it is faultless, a textbook strategy. However from a reputational point of view it is reckless advice and the worst PR strategy you could possibly deploy.

The legal profession doesn’t come from the background of reputational management in the way PR does.

Lawyers are short-term players, defending the short-term aim – in most cases minimising the financial exposure of their client in a legal case. From that perspective the advice the legal profession presents in times of crisis is absolutely right

But unfortunately the world is not a black and white place, it is made up of shades of colours.

In the case of Thomas Cook the public perception didn’t care about the legal position of the brand, or the finer detail of who was right or who was wrong. The public had a feel for how it felt the brand should behave, and Thomas Cook simply made the wrong call.

So the lesson for us all, for there but for the grace of God goes every travel brand, is to balance the legal advice of admitting nothing with the PR advice of being seen to be humble in times of crisis.

The long-term cost of damage to the brand can be far greater than the legal costs of a short-term crisis.

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