Corporate apologies – ‘Listen to the lawyers & you will get it horribly wrong’

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The first half of 2015 has provided plenty of case studies on how to deal with a crisis – but there are two separate cases which will surely be compared as one case study for years to come.

Thomas Cook and Alton Towers (owned by Merlin Entertainments) have both had to face up to tragedies suffered by their customers yet one has managed to keep on top of the news while the other has seen its reputation sink.

Following the accident on the Smiler ride, which saw a teenage passenger losing her leg and four others requiring hospital treatment, Merlin immediately accepted responsibility and said it would be paying compensation to the victims. The story ended up focusing on the human aspect of the accident, including the effect it had on staff at the theme park.

The difference between how this was received and the reaction to Thomas Cook executives blankly stating ‘no comment’ at an inquest into the death of a young brother and sister while on a family holiday in Corfu nine years previously is stark.

One British national newspaper even went so far as to say: “The firm’s handling of the case has been a lesson in how not to manage a crisis.”

CIPR crisis comms trainer, Kate Betts, is the director of media training and PR firm, Capital B Media. She feels that Thomas Cook’s problem comes from listening too much to the lawyers and not enough to the public relations team. The legal team was keen to distance the company from liability due to the involvement of a third party – in this case the hotel owners.

“Even if, as in Thomas Cook’s case, you were not directly involved in the crisis, you can still be responsible for it,” she said. “Trying to blame a third party does not look good to the general public. It does, however, look good to the lawyers.

“And herein lies the problem – listen to the lawyers and you will get it horribly wrong. Try and say it wasn’t your fault, you followed policies and procedures, and ordinary people will see you as callous and uncaring.”

Kate feels that the idea that advice from corporate lawyers not only makes you appear heartless and damages reputation but that it is largely misplaced.

“The lawyers will tell you not to apologise because it admits liability. Now I am not a lawyer, but doesn’t the Compensation Act 2006 say: ‘An apology, an offer of treatment or other redress, shall not of itself amount to an admission of negligence or breach of statutory duty’? Sometimes people just want an apology.”

Capital B Media works for a firm of lawyers who fight medical negligence cases for clients. They say in 90 per cent of cases the victims and their families don’t really want the money, they want an apology and to know it would never happen to anybody else.

So what advice would Kate offer to someone who had a crisis on their hands? She believes it’s as simple as customer care. “You go into a shop or phone up to complain – and what do you really want? You want to hear the word ‘sorry’. You don’t want buck-passing or excuses.

“One simple mantra we teach in crisis comms training is CARe – which stands for Concern, Action, Reassurance. It roughly translates into something like: ‘We’re sorry to hear about the problem Mr Smith, we are investigating and will do our best to make sure this never happens again.’

“The first bit – the Concern – is the most important bit. Be human when the world thinks you have got it wrong. The alternative is a massive cost – and I am not talking about compensation, but reputation.”

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Rob Smith is the editor of Influence. He's a reporter with a background in business journalism.

  1. At the PR Week Crisis Communications conference last week there was a lot of talk about how Thomas Cook handled the situation. Many attendees(including lawyers there) were saying this could be the definitive moment where communications advice on saying sorry will start to overtake legal advice on not admitting liability. A US attendee said that it is harder to say sorry from a legal perspective in the US, which makes it difficult for global companies (I’d be really keen to find out if that’s right). It’ll certainly start some interesting debates. Perhaps we’ll finally see communications and legal teams working closer together as a result.

  2. Yep I hid behind the cushions and shouted at the telly whenever Thomas Cook took to the air about the incident. Truly atrocious. Saying sorry should just never be that hard. In life and business.
    In the NHS where I work, clinical professionals make mistakes in their jobs all the time. Unfortunately very rarely, someone will lose their life as a result. You have to face up to your responsibity as an organisation and excercise a duty to your employees. When things go wrong its rarely the fault of one particualar individual. Organisational culture and practice often had a hand in whatever tragedy unfolded.

  3. Saying sorry is one of the hardest things to do. Many people forget that the tone of the voice is also important. We hear the tone of a person’s voice BEFORE we hear what they say. You have to sound as though you mean it. This means you have to feel it to make that emotional connection with your audience.

    I’ve been running media interview training courses for over 20 years and watched many people say things like “safety is our first priority. The most memorable was a nuclear industry spokesman who said: ” We operate in a safe envelope here!”

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