Tour operator Thomas Cook triggered outrage this week with its response to the deaths of two children on one of its holidays in 2006. Bobby and Christi Shepherd, aged 6 and 7, died of carbon monoxide poisoning in Corfu. The cause was a faulty boiler in their hotel room. Thomas Cook did not own the hotel, but an inquest that ended this week found that the group had not done enough to ensure the property had carried out proper safety checks.
During the inquest, chief executive Peter Fankhauser said he sympathised, but that Cook had “no need to apologise” as it hadn’t done anything wrong. It also emerged that the company had received £3.5m in compensation from the hotel owner, around ten times the sum the family had received.
After paying its lawyers, Cook has now donated the remaining £1.5m to Unicef. Amid the outcry, Fankhauser said he was “deeply sorry” and admitted the company “could have handled its relationship with the family better”.
What the commentators said
The business world is “littered with examples of companies that jeopardised hard-won reputations with a single lapse”, said the Financial Times. Thomas Cook can now be added to the list, having been “excoriated” for the “extraordinarily tin-eared and heartless way it handled the case”.
During the trial and inquest, the company “presented itself as the very model of the legalistic corporation”, said economist.com’s Gulliver blog. The family pleaded for a “smidgen of contrition”, but the firm kept rejecting any responsibility. It must have been “encouraged in its intransigence by legal advice that a real apology might amount to an admission of culpability”.
Still, said Alistair Osborne in The Times, you’d think Cook’s lawyer “might have found a form of words that got around that, or that Cook’s directors might have insisted it did”. An apology that comes after a public outcry “looks grudging”. The Unicef payment was also “cack-handed”, added The Guardian’s Nils Pratley.
Fankhauser said it was the right thing to do, failing to explain why it wasn’t right when the cash was received in 2013 and 2014. It’s not yet clear what “[mislaying] its moral compass” could cost Cook, said the FT. But it’s interesting to note that monthly Google searches for the company have dropped by 18% year-on-year.