Thomas Cook, the UK Tour Operator, is a significant company with c£9bn of revenue and over 22,000 employees. Operating in a difficult sector, heavily impacted by global economic conditions and the relentless move of customers towards online booking, its Executive are used to wrestling with difficult decisions, charting a safe course through the choppy waters of the travel industry.
It's worth asking then, in the case of the tragic deaths of 7 year old Christi and 6 year old Bobby Shepherd in a Corfu Hotel, how could the company have got it so wrong?
What went wrong?
In 2006, the 2 children died of carbon monoxide poisoning in a hotel booked by Thomas Cook. Whilst the hotel resort has been found to be directly liable for the deaths, Thomas Cook has admitted that its health and safety audit of the hotel complex was inadequate. This fact on its own is not, tragically, unique in the corporate world. Unfortunately many organisations' do not invest sufficient rigour in their overarching duty of care, with box ticking soon becoming the norm.
However, the most startling fact was the failure of Thomas Cook to show empathy and concern to the parents of the children, until events overtook them and the market forced them to be contrite. Executives exercised their rights to silence, whilst the parents fought their battle to be heard. After 9 years, Sharon Wood, the mother of the children, commented that the company's apology was "too little, too late" and that the company had demonstrated a "lack of human decency", stating "would anyone trust that firm after how they have treated us?"
Although the resultant apology, in the word of the family's QC, Leslie Thomas, was "sincere and heartfelt", in the inquest held earlier in May, the CEO, Peter Frankhauser, noted that the company had no need to apologise "because there was no wrongdoing by Thomas Cook".
It's too early to say what financial damage has resulted, although the immediate furore has resulted in a tangible drop in online searches, a Facebook campaign to boycott Thomas Cook and the loss of important advertisers. However, whilst city analysts seem unfazed, the long term impact on the brand is bound to be significant, albeit unquantifiable.
In a sector where the family market is crucial, Thomas Cook has too easily divorced itself from the brand values that this audience prizes: trust, compassion, and empathy.
So what do we learn?
All organisations need to learn some important lessons from these events.
Chris Lorimer is an organisational consultant who has worked with a wide range of clients, helping them to communicate effectively to their audiences. He lives in Devon, UK, with his family.
Chris Lorimer is an
experienced management consultant who has helped many owners, Directors and staff to achieve more.