Alton Towers and Thomas Cook: a tale of two CEOs

Posted on 12 Jun 2015

Rarely are such different approaches to crisis communications available to compare and contrast as the recent activity by Thomas Cook and Alton Towers.

For Thomas Cook, it was the company’s response to the tragic deaths of two children, killed by carbon monoxide while sleeping during a Greek holiday booked through the company. For Alton Towers, it was the accident on a rollercoaster which left 16 people injured, one of whom has had her leg amputated above the knee.

Of the two companies, Alton Towers has received much more praise for the way in which it has responded to the accident. Thomas Cook, on the other hand, even though it was cleared of any legal responsibility at the inquest, was castigated by the media and PRs for doing ‘too little, too late’ and ‘too much legal, not enough empathy’. The initial decision not to issue an apology to the family, and the revelation that the firm had accepted £1.5m in compensation were body blows to its reputation.

Alton Towers had its hiccups, too: a reported delay in contacting the emergency services, questions over the ride’s maintenance record, the widespread sharing on social media of footage of the accident’s immediate aftermath. But, overall, the company’s response drew plaudits, being described by one commentator as ‘textbook’.

So what made the difference? Both companies have well-paid PR advisers and a raft of agencies to whom they could turn. How could one get it so wrong?

First, the fact that Thomas Cook was one-step removed from the cause of their incident probably muddied the PR waters. While Alton Towers was clearly and unequivocally at the centre of their crisis, Thomas Cook had the potential to put some distance between itself and the tragedy i.e. it was the hotel, not us. This gave the company a choice that was not open to Alton Towers; it may well have made its senior management more amenable to legal advice suggesting that any public statement of regret would remove that protective gap.

Second, look at the respective performances of the two CEOs on television. Merlin’s Nick Varney, Alton Tower’s owner, looked and sounded like one of us. He spoke naturally, had no notable accent, mussed hair and wore his shirt collar unbuttoned. In his voice, you could hear the weight of the world was upon his shoulders. Empathy and apology oozed from his pores. Even when Sky’s Kaye Burley set out to give him a public flogging, he managed the interview gracefully – so gracefully he engendered viewers’ sympathy.

By contrast, Thomas Cook’s Peter Fankhauser made his apology on a platform reading autocue, wearing a tailored dark suit and tie, set off by a natty pocket handkerchief. His face was set in stone. He is Swiss –something clearly beyond his control – which gives him an accent that, to the British ear, can sound clipped and functional. Mr Fankhauser was not the CEO at the time of the tragedy.

Nick Varney came across as a man; Peter Fankhauser came across as a businessman. Therein lies the difference. Looking and sounding like a businessman may endear you to investors and market analysts, but during a consumer crisis, you’re talking to the general public. If you insist on looking like a high-flying executive, you’re removing yourself from your audience – erecting a barrier between you and them. And that’s going to make getting your message across all the more difficult.

By Adrian Beeby