The news that Thomas Cook has donated £1.5m to Unicef in connection with the deaths of two children during one of its package holidays in 2006 may abate the media storm surrounding the company. On the other hand, the cost to its reputation over the past nine years is incalculable. Let me be clear that I am not going to discuss whether the money should have been paid to the parents, or whether the compensation paid and the apologies made to them have been adequate. Thomas Cook was exonerated of wrongdoing by a Greek court, which found the owners of the hotel where the children died to have been negligent. In the recent Coroner’s Inquest the jury found that Thomas Cook had “breached its duty of care” to the family, although the company maintained that it had done nothing wrong, emphasising that its system of safety checks had subsequently been reviewed and improved.
The fundamental issue, as I have said before, is that “Perception is all there is” – in this case, there is the family’s perception, and there is the public perception, inevitably fuelled by the media. Now that a substantial amount of the compensation awarded to Thomas Cook for its costs and reputational damage has been donated to charity, the company will hope to move on and start rebuilding its good name. For the family of Bobby and Christi Shepherd, of course, moving on is something that will be infinitely more difficult. When you listen to what they have said, moreover, the biggest issue which has exacerbated this already horrendous set of circumstances is their perception that Thomas Cook has never given them a sufficiently full and unconditional apology – arguably the gesture which would have been the easiest and cheapest one to make.
Of course, everyone understands the legal implications of apologies in relation to admission of liability, insurance claims and so on. The fact remains however, that Thomas Cook had it in its power to “be on the side” of Bobby and Christi’s family – after all, both parties were the victims of the Greek hotel’s negligence – in other words, to do whatever it took to ensure that the family felt supported. Instead, the family had to carry on a lone fight for justice, as they saw it; incurring considerable financial hardship, let alone the emotional anguish they have endured over the past nine years. It is hard to understand how Thomas Cook could apparently be so focused on its own reputation that it allowed this family to suffer so much additional pain, rather than helping them feel supported and adequately compensated – by which I mean morally and emotionally compensated, as well as legally.
Thomas Cook Group’s website states “Our timeless spirit of innovation started in 1841, and we have been giving customers what they want, from a partner they trust.” With painful irony, at the time of writing, immediately above that strap-line is a link to the company’s statement regarding the inquest.
In previous posts I’ve talked about the fundamental importance of Trust, Integrity and Authenticity. Today I was going to discuss the tendency of Brands not to take responsibility when something done in its name, by a sub-contractor, disappoints a Customer. This case, however, is such a heart-rending example of this syndrome that I will save other, more trivial examples for a later post.
Suffice it to say that, whilst Thomas Cook has done nothing illegal, it will have no-one but itself to blame if potential Customers ask themselves whether the words “giving customers what they want, from a partner they trust” have just a slightly hollower ring today.