Being Sorry & Being Human Corporate Story / Crisis communications

Any crisis situation for an organisation is highly emotional – for those involved and for the audience watching. Any tragedy involving children evokes particularly strong emotions. Blend the two and you have a potentially volatile reputation crisis. How should a PRO advise their leaders on what and how to communicate? When do you say sorry?

In May 2015, we wrote a case study (reproduced in part below) about a coroner inquest into the deaths in 2006 of two small children, Christianne and Robert Shepherd. They had died from carbon monoxide poisoning from a faulty hotel boiler while on a Thomas Cook holiday in Corfu.

Many people felt that both Thomas Cook’s formal response over the years and the language and behaviour of key executives during the inquest was cold-hearted, driven by legal advice to avoid any suggestion of personal or corporate liability. A liability of course which could have reputational and thus business consequences. In Thomas Cook’s case, by not admitting to any liability has created reputational and business consequences. But does legal advice need make monsters of corporate executives? Surely, no-one could argue with the simple injunction to ‘be human’.

At the time, one wonders whether CEO, Peter Fankhauser, and his colleagues were aware that Section 2 of the 2006 Compensation Act, states that an apology shall not in itself be construed as an “admission of negligence or breach of statutory duty”. Would Fankhauser have been more ‘human’ if he knew and had acted on this?

There is evidence of the beneficial impact an apology can have on the healing process for those affected by an incident and that full apologies can reduce the likelihood of civil litigation.

In truth, there are probably enough uncertainty around this vague, untested 2006 clause to warrant a new one. And in Scotland, they have. In June 2017, the Apologies (Scotland) Act 2016 came into force. While it relates to most civil rather than criminal proceedings, it seeks to change the culture around organisations apologising by giving people certainty that an apology cannot be used against them in legal proceedings.

The Act says that an apology is not admissible as evidence of anything relevant to the determination of liability in connection with that matter, and cannot be used in any other way to the prejudice of the person by or on behalf of whom the apology was made.

An apology is defined as any statement made by or on behalf of a person which indicates that the person is sorry about, or regrets, an act, omission or outcome and includes any part of the statement which contains an undertaking to look at the circumstances giving rise to the act, omission or outcome with a view to preventing a recurrence.

It’s a start and in the PR industry we should be rallying behind a change in English law too.

 

Highlights From The 2015 Case Study:

Thomas Cook had been cleared of responsibility at a criminal trial in Greece in 2010; the manager of the hotel and the electrician who wired the boiler were convicted of manslaughter. The coroner’s inquest ultimately agreed that Thomas Cook was not responsible – although it found its health and safety audit to have been inadequate and to have therefore failed in its ‘duty of care’.

Much public anger was directed at Peter Fankhauser, chief executive at Thomas Cook since 2014, who told the inquest: “I feel so thoroughly, from the deepest of my heart, sorry but there’s no need to apologise because there was no wrongdoing by Thomas Cook.” As a father himself, I am sure Fankhauser was genuinely sad for the parents; he tried to express it in a human way.

But this was not how the audience saw things. In highly charged emotional situations, people go with how they ‘feel’ about things which makes it very difficult to use rational argument. And people felt that an apology was due because its health and safety systems had been insufficient.

Now just because an audience wants something doesn’t mean you have to give it to them – even if there is a reputation consequence. Be that as it may, it seems clear that Thomas Cook’s legal advice was not to incriminate themselves and that included not apologising. The coroner himself had stipulated that witnesses did not have to answer any questions that might incriminate them. And several former employees exercised this legal right. “I decline to answer” echoed around the court room many times from different witnesses.

A couple of days after the inquest, Thomas Cook sent a letter to the parents. Not only did the parents only first hear about it from reporters but it still didn’t address the central issue for them and the wider public. They stated: “It’s not an apology for their wrongdoing but a general offer of sympathy. It does not address the central issue that their safety management system failed, and it does not apologise for that.”