Public relations in times of tragedy

The usefulness of Public Relations as a service to businesses and organisations is, quite rightly, frequently questioned. But over the past few days the repercussions of two tragic stories have highlighted why it is so important to get PR right – and the implications of getting it wrong.

On the day nurse Victorino Chua was found guilty of murdering and poisoning patients, the BBC ran a detailed background story about Stepping Hill Hospital. There was not the normal brief statement by a hospital administrator straight after the verdict, but an interview with Chua’s boss – the director of nursing and midwifery – dressed in her nurse’s uniform. She said hospitals had to rely on the Nursing and Midwifery Council to carry out proper checks on overseas nurses; her staff had been extremely upset and angered by Chua’s crimes, and steps had been taken to prevent similar incidents in the future.

I presume the hospital’s intention of allowing BBC such access was two-fold: it had nothing to hide – it was also a victim of a Chua – and the hospital was safe for patients. I’m not likely to be a patient at Stepping Hill, but I was re-assured. I might think twice about booking a holiday with Thomas Cook, though.

This morning, nine years after Christi and Bobby Shepherd were “unlawfully killed” when they were poisoned by carbon monoxide at a hotel in Corfu, the boss of Thomas Cook finally publicly apologised.

Peter Fankhauser’s admission that the company “could have done better” followed the inquest last week into the children’s deaths when he said Thomas Cook had done “nothing wrong” and later the revelation that his company had received £3m in damages from the hotel’s owner.

Thousands of people joined a Boycott Thomas Cook Facebook page and £75m was wiped off the value of the company as the price of shares plummeted.

Thomas Cook’s inadequate reaction to the tragic deaths of Christi and Bobby will tarnish the company’s reputation for the foreseeable future. It did not kill the children but – as the company which choose the hotel – it had a significant responsibility. Recognition of this responsibility should have been at the forefront of its public and private (to the family) responses. But it failed to do this and, as a result – although far less important than the lives of children – it failed to protect its brand.