What price for an apology, Thomas Cook?

Here we go again. Another business that has failed in its corporate duty, this time holiday company Thomas Cook, won’t say sorry.

Nearly nine years ago, in October 2006, two young children – six year old Bobby and seven year old Christi Shepherd – died as a result of carbon monoxide poisoning. Two adults, the children’s father Neil Shepherd and his then partner now wife Ruth, were found unconscious and near death in a bungalow in the grounds of a hotel in Corfu.

Yes, the faulty boiler was the responsibility of the Louis Corcyra Beach Hotel in Corfu – that they are to blame is without doubt and, in 2010, three of its employees were found guilty of manslaughter. But travellers expect companies such as Thomas Cook, self-described as “the best-known name in travel” and in business for 174 years, to check that the hotels it recommends are safe. The hotel was found to have misled or lied to Thomas Cook about gas in the hotel. But Thomas Cook was found not to have conducted tests itself. There was no apology when the tragedy happened and no apology after the trial in Corfu.

Last week, Thomas Cook was given another chance to apologise. So what did the chief executive say? “We have nothing to apologise for.”

Now, the morning after the inquest jury delivered its damning verdict, and despite very tough words making very tough headlines including on national television news, Thomas Cook still hasn’t apologised. It should “hang its head in shame” the lawyer representing the children’s parents said. It “breached its duty of care” the jury found. The children’s mother, Sharon Wood, said of Thomas Cook, “I will always hold Thomas Cook responsible for their deaths”. And still no apology.

When would Thomas Cook think it is appropriate to say sorry? How many deaths would it take? What age must the children be? Should adults die too?

There are wider implications, as there often are with corporate reputation crises. The coroner is expected to make recommendations to the whole travel industry – and rightly so. One company’s devastating error is a potential reputation crisis for others. Other travel companies should already be busy reviewing their risk assessments, revising their policies, and implementing actions that minimise risks not only from decrepit boilers but also across every possible aspect of the travel industry. Travel companies owe it to travellers – that’s you and me – to take appropriate care including by doing all they can to ensure third parties don’t put us at risk.

A look at Thomas Cook’s website just now shows that there is nothing on it about this tragedy. Not a word of regret – not in 2006, not in 2010, not now – and, of course, no apology. Instead, the home page states that holiday-makers can “escape the everyday, enjoy new experiences, indulge in relaxation and focus on quality time with your family and friends”. It tells us to “Trust Thomas Cook to make your holidays truly special” and that “There are no compromises to be made on a Thomas Cook holiday”. I can’t imagine that Neil and Ruth Shepherd and Sharon Wood find those words easy to read.

That’s not the only website calamity. The most recent press release, published in February, invites Thomas Cook customers to create their own personalised holiday brochure cover, from their holiday memories, for a chance to win a dream holiday. Even in good times, this sort of competition opens businesses up to criticism. There will always be some complaints; there will always be people who want to get some revenge for their mistreatment by entering negative examples; competitions, borne out of corporate arrogance, can go disastrously wrong. “Whether it’s a portrait of quality time together as a family or a snapshot of a group of friends simply having fun, customers can celebrate their real good times abroad,” the blurb says. What will the Shepherd and Wood families make of that?

Thomas Cook may well have taken steps since 2006 to be more careful about where it sends its dream-holiday-seekers but that isn’t enough. For a business that has been in business since 1841, it appears to have learned very little about taking responsibility – which it must do and fast.

The word ‘sorry’ remains the largest tag in my blog because of its absence in words spoken when dealing with a reputation crisis. Time after time, businesses and people fail to take responsibility for their actions or inactions; they fail to say sorry. Yet, saying sorry – at least apologising for what has happened, even if the company or people concerned aren’t to blame for failings and can’t say ‘sorry we did it’ – is the single most important action to take to minimise damage to reputation. If Thomas Cook wants to rebuild its reputation, it must say sorry.

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