I’ve handled some crises in my time – and observed a few from the gallery – but I can’t recall one that has seen such an ambitious act of corporate hole digging as the one on display from Thomas Cook.
In the aftermath of the dreadful and tragic deaths of the children in Corfu, the company appears to have handed ‘management’ of the crisis to its lawyers.
Looking through the chronology, there are so many missteps that it’s hard to know where to start. For now, I’ll restrict my comments to their apparent refusal to apologise.
I suspect that strict instructions have been issued to executives to avoid saying sorry. That’s a mathematical decision based on law.
It doesn’t interfere, though, with the company’s ability to make human overtures, expressions of concern, or to demonstrate an understanding in public in an emotionally intelligent way what the parents have been through.
English is probably the most nuanced language in the word – and there are countless expressions of concern and compassion that can take the place of the word ‘apologise’. Many of these could be used if the use of the ‘A’ word is construed as an admission of liability and therefore invites unacceptable risk for shareholders.
There’s probably a gap in the market for a book called The Lawyer’s Thesaurus of Words That Show Compassion.
There is also a broader ‘calculation’, to use a rather heartless term in pursuit of the right answer, that Thomas Cook and other firms facing a crisis should work through and that is this: ‘what is the worst that can happen if a company does apologise?’
If you look at social media this morning – and the papers – you’ll see that exposure to risk in the courts is now a rather narrow ambit. There’s also the larger, and today more brutal court of popular opinion. Thomas Cook have lost any control of the reaction to this crisis and there’s a risk that the impact on their bottom line will be significant.
Looking more widely at the issue of the acceptance of responsibility, it’s pretty clear that many businesses and individuals are pretty terrible at apologising even when they do. Listen to the radio most days when someone is on the ropes and you’ll regularly hear them say:
“If people feel that way about [what I said/what we did], I can only apologise.”
This is such an empty line, like something out of Reputation Management for Dummies. Apologies aren’t box ticking exercises. The effectiveness of an apology rests largely on its sincerity – and in it an understanding and expression of the practical and emotional implications and consequences of your failure. It also often rests on a subtle shift in two or three words. If you replace the line above with:
“many people have clearly been [offended/affected] by [what I said/what we have done] and I am truly sorry”
…it makes a difference to the impact, if not the outcome. Getting to the heart of the victims’ experience, seeing the world through their eyes, is at the heart of a genuine statement of contrition.
Rule of thumb: don’t let the word ‘if’ go anywhere near your apology. Apologies should be unconditional, not qualified.
At a distant and prosaic level, we all experience the half-baked apology. Every morning one or other train from my station is delayed and the announcer says “we apologise to customers for any inconvenience this has caused.”
In this case, it’s the use of the word ‘any’ that lets it down. It’s too scattergun, akin to that terrible line in the Take That song – “whatever I said, whatever I did, I didn’t mean it.”
I’ll add another thought here on nuance. If your chief executive is also your chief spokesperson, if you’re engaging with UK media in a crisis, make sure that he or she has a forensic knowledge of English. A poorly constructed sentence uttered in public can make a terrible and indelible difference.
Above all, say something specific and heartfelt. At the core of the handling of any crisis there must be an expression of understanding of the impact of your actions on the aggrieved. That’s why Truth and Reconciliation Commissions and mediation are so successful. They go to the heart of the matter. An apology is an apology, not a disclaimer. Elton John, sadly, was right.