In The Prince, medieval sage and schemer par excellence Nicollo Machiavelli cautioned against responding to unrest in a piecemeal fashion. A ruler, he said, should crush nascent uprisings with immediate brutality, and later show mercy. That way, they would always be feared for the former while still loved for the latter.
Sadly, Machiavelli didn’t give specific advice to 21st Century travel businesses confronted with PR maladies, but the broad principle applies: it’s probably best to rip the plaster off now than let the wound fester.
Thomas Cook is a case in point. In 2006, the Shepherd family’s two children died while on a Thomas Cook holiday in Greece, as a result of a faulty boiler leaking toxic carbon monoxide. A Greek court convicted several staff from the Louis hotel where the family had stayed of negligent manslaughter. Thomas Cook was cleared of any blame and perhaps understandably refused to issue an apology.
The story was revived last week when an inquest near the parents’ homes in Wakefield found that Thomas Cook had ‘breached its duty of care’ to the family. The Mail took up the crusade, reporting that the firm had received £3.5m compensation (it called it ‘blood money’) for its commercial losses from the tragedy, ten times more than the parents.
Still, Thomas Cook refused to say sorry. Its new boss Peter Fankhauser said ‘there’s no need to apologise because there was no wrongdoing by Thomas Cook’. Anger grew, and the firm decided it had better say sorry after all. Sort of.
The Mail then reported a letter from the company to the parents, expressing its regret at what happened but not admitting any guilt. The family claimed never to have seen the letter and condemned Thomas Cook’s ‘cynical’ move in leaking the letter to the press.
It’s a tough situation for Thomas Cook’s PR department. The firm does not accept that the tragedy was its fault, but in the reputation stakes, a grieving family beats a big business every time. Moreover, a one-off safety problem the courts decided wasn’t of Thomas Cook’s doing is still in the news and presumably hurting business nine years after it happened.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, shares in the company dropped 3.5% to 155.7p Monday morning as investors digested the news of the letter.
As the Shepherd children’s mother Sharon Wood put it, sending a letter of apology now is ‘too little, too late’. On Tuesday, Thomas Cook announced it's donating half its compensation to charity, stressing it has never profited from the tragedy.
However, nothing Thomas Cook could reasonably do now will make this problem go away – the opportunity to nip it in the bud passed long ago. The best it can probably hope for is that the story will go stale now that the inquest is over, to be replaced by something more positive.
Machiavelli, though, would no doubt caution that people have longer memories when it comes to bad news than they do for good.