Last year – 2015 – witnessed a PR disaster of epic proportions unfold in the national media. Tragically, two children had died of carbon monoxide poisoning in an overseas apartment while on a family holiday booked with a major British holiday operator. Their father and stepmother only narrowly escaped the same fate.
This in itself was a terrible and, most would argue, completely preventable tragedy.
However, what happened subsequently and over the ensuing nine years greatly compounded the family’s grief – and did enormous damage to the reputation of the holiday company in question:
• The holiday operator made the parents, newly out of hospital, having only just survived themselves, take a standard flight back to Britain seated among happy returning holiday makers, their children’s coffins in the cargo hold;
• The holiday operator refused to apologise to the parents for SEVEN years;
• The parents (children’s father and birth-mother) had to pursue the holiday operator through the courts for both acknowledgement of responsibility and finally a payout of £350,000 each, during those seven years, remortgaging their homes to fund their battle;
• Meanwhile, it turned out the holiday operator had lodged a claim for compensation from the leisure operator who owned the complex where the tragedy happened for, among other expenses, the cost of sending special “media advisers” to Greece whose brief would have been to limit damage to their reputation, loss of profits as a result of bookings being cancelled, refunds or compensation over the incident, and loss of revenue because ‘their employees had to spend a considerable proportion of their time dealing with the tragedy’;
• The holiday operator finally received £3.5million, but neglected to tell the family or offer to share it with them;
• The family was promised that the chalet where the tragedy happened would be bulldozed as a mark of respect and so no other family would stay there. Instead, the colour of the chalet was changed and it was re-numbered;
• Meanwhile, two highly paid directors came and went from the holiday company with large pay-offs, despite failing to apologise or bring any kind of acceptable closure for the family.
It seems remarkable that the claim shows that the holiday company clearly hired “media advisers” for crisis management purposes shortly after the tragedy.
And yet the company went on to dig themselves into an even bigger hole by making all the above crisis management mistakes, possibly through ignoring their advisers’ advice.
In business, nothing is more important than your reputation – and how you use crisis management and crisis communication.
It seems an act of extraordinary arrogance to forget this, as evidently occurred in this sorry affair.
Crisis management is not a magic wand. It is not going to make bad stuff go away. It will not erase mismanagement or organisational failings.
No one can spin something as tragic as the deaths of two children into a good news story.
How to Handle a Crisis
But companies can be trained in advance in how to handle a crisis – and do the equitable, ethical and right thing.
In this case, the company should have been open and transparent, bending over backgrounds to put safeguards in place to ensure the same fate did not befall other customers.
It could have done everything in its power to be open and transparent, treat the bereaved parents with respect, pay them compensation with legal argument and apologise profusely for what happened on one of their holidays.
Indeed, it should have known how to avoid the ultimate PR disaster.
There was absolutely no way a company can expect to sweep such an incident under the carpet. They should not even have thought about it, yet alone attempted it.
Nor should they, for such an act makes them look cowardly as well as immoral and at the end of the day, those children deserve their story to be told and justice for their families.
To be seen to behave honourably in tragic circumstances is the ONLY way to behave when trying to rebuild the reputation of the company.
As it is, the travel company was roundly slated by the national media, created a veritable storm on social media and prompted thousands of people to vow never to book a holiday with them again. Naturally, investors reflected on the competence of the governance and the share price also took a beating.
Ultimately, the travel company lost far more in the long run – financially and reputationally – than they would ever have done by coming clean about what happened and doing everything in their power to behave honourably towards the family, starting with a private jet to fly them and the children home and offering to pay the cost of the funerals.
But it seems that despite the fact that having happened abroad (the tragedy avoided the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 and preceded the Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Act 2007), any gesture on the part of the company was perceived as an admission of guilt and they were simply not going to go there.
The biggest flaw of all was the company’s failure to apologise for seven long years, taking the line at the eventual inquest that while it regretted the deaths, it had done nothing wrong and therefore had nothing to apologise for.
The current CEO only expressed sorrow about the incident to a BBC interviewer afterwards rather than to the family themselves.
Running a company, it is vital your staff are trained in crisis management, including crisis media training, that common sense prevails over over-protective legal advice and the leadership acts in a morally and reputationally correct way.
Invest in your reputation and don’t look a shabby shambles like the travel company in this case study of how not to handle a crisis!
• This article is the view of the author who is a Brighton-based expert in Crisis Support, Crisis Management and Crisis Communication Training and Media Training, working in Sussex and London.