Thomas Cook’s reputation in turbulence: what can we learn from it? -

Exactly one week after Thomas Cook fell into liquidation, former Chief Executive, Peter Fankhauser said in an interview in The Sunday Times, ‘We didn’t do anything wrong… We were so close to a deal’. But with 9,000 UK jobs lost, hotels all over the world at risk of closure and 600,000 holidaymakers stranded abroad, ‘so close’ wasn’t close enough to save the business.

It’s a tale as old as time; a story of failed modernisation. Since the dotcom boom, we’ve seen lots of the UK’s most-loved high street names falling by the wayside. It was Woolworths in 2008, and BHS in 2016. Just last month the BBC reported that the number of empty retail spaces is at an all-time high as businesses generated less than 20% of sales on the shop floor compared to online.

But while this started out as a story about the declining British high street, as the dust settles, we’re able to look at what Thomas Cook’s fall represents for trusted household brands all over the world and what we – as communications practitioners – can learn from it.

There are obvious business lessons; invest in your online journey; be responsive to changing customer behaviours and modernise, but there are lessons to be learned from how the industry has responded to the crisis too.

  • The industry and Thomas Cook’s competitors have put on a united ‘family’ front in the wake of last week’s news, but customers have been left with a bitter taste in their mouths at the massive price rises they’ve seen when trying to rebook their holidays with other providersEasyJet and Jet2 blamed this on algorithms designed to respond to supply and demand, but some holidaymakers saw identical trips costing thousands of pounds more. Cashing in on a crisis is never a good look, and while it may deliver short-term financial gain, the reputation damage is long-lasting.
  • We always encourage our clients to have a robust crisis management plan in place, and this goes further than press statements and media interviews, it needs to be functional. Thomas Cook customers complained of website crashes and blocked phone lines in the days following the announcement, but it wasn’t only those trying to get through to Thomas Cook who struggled. There were reports of website crashes, long phone queues and poor communications from competitors, should they have had the foresight to plan for the collapse of a major competitor too?
  • In a crisis, speed is everything. The Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) was quick to build a Thomas Cook microsite to host all the information customers stranded abroad may need. At a time when Thomas Cook reps, hotel staff and airport staff were unable to provide sound advice and guidance, the website offered reassurance.
  • There have also been valuable lessons about internal communications. Rachel Murrell was one of the 9,000 UK-based Thomas Cook employees who lost their jobs last weekend, had worked at the company for twenty years and found out the company had gone under via a staff WhatsApp group. She doesn’t know when she’ll next be paid and has now generated national headlines by pledging to walk 200 miles from Devon to Westminster to ‘demand answers’. However, the commitment of staff who have been working unpaid to bring holidaymakers home has generated a different style of headline and their dedication shows that the culture and values within the business were a strong driving force for its people.

Thomas Cook isn’t the first well-loved household brand to disappear, and as consumer behaviours shift and evolve, businesses have a responsibility to keep up, or deal with the consequences of falling behind. As communications practitioners there’s always so much we can learn from the experience of other businesses and the communications successes and challenges they have faced along the way.

We put audiences at the heart of everything we do for our clients at Vested. By constantly reviewing their habits, wants, needs and dislikes, our clients are able to communicate with them effectively, and anticipate what their next move is going to be.

By Sophie Paterson

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