Bill Carmichael: Thomas Cook and continuing PR disaster over Christi and Bobby Shepherd’s deaths in Corfu

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Like many a miserably-paid hack I’ve occasionally been tempted by the lure of better rewards in the public relations sector; to leave the ranks of the poachers and become a gamekeeper.

I’ve never taken the plunge but plenty of colleagues have – and generally they’ve done pretty well out of it.

One in particular oozed prosperity when I bumped into him a few years later – sharp suit, deep tan, Hollywood teeth and a top-of-the-range BMW in the car park. “Still taking the PR shilling then?” I asked him.

“No,” he replied, “I’m now a corporate crisis management consultant.”

Eh? It turned out he had established himself as the go-to person for companies when things turned out pear-shaped.

You know the sort of thing; the chairman of your ethics committee is exposed in a tabloid sting, taking drugs surrounded by prostitutes.

Or your chief financial officer is caught raiding the pension fund to pay for an out-of-control gambling addiction.

My ex-colleague is called in to limit the damage and protect the brand.

I wonder if Thomas Cook thought about calling in my old friend after the deaths of children Christi and Bobby Shepherd, from Horbury, near Wakefield, from carbon monoxide poisoning from a faulty boiler in their holiday apartment in Corfu in 2006. If not perhaps they should have done.

Thomas Cook’s handling of this tragedy has been an unmitigated disaster for the company from start to finish, and will probably be taught in PR training sessions as the perfect example of how not to do it.

First, key executives refused to answer questions at the inquest, making them appear shifty and uncaring. No doubt this was done on the best possible legal advice, but did no one at the company pause to consider how this would look?

Like millions of other families the Shepherds probably chose Thomas Cook because it had a reputation for reliability and trustworthiness. By dodging legitimate questions about how the children came to die, Thomas Cook has done untold damage to its core business.

To make matters worse chief executive Peter Fankhauser told the inquest the company had done “nothing wrong” and a letter of apology supposedly addressed to the parents was instead sent to reporters.

To cap it all, it was then revealed Thomas Cook had received £3m compensation for loss of business as a result of the incident. The company was shamed into donating half of it to the children’s charity Unicef.

Yes, a slicker approach may have limited the damage, but on reflection that is not the point.

Perhaps Thomas Cook’s most serious fault was simply losing sight of what this actually is – an appalling human tragedy that could have been easily avoided.

Two little children lost their lives entirely unnecessarily and the grief and pain of their families can only be imagined. Perhaps if Thomas Cook bosses had been guided by that, instead of desperately covering their own backs, the company wouldn’t be in the mess it is in today. Sometimes it is right to simply ditch the PR manual and just do the decent thing.

Burnham’s baggage

Some of the bloodletting in the Labour Party after its catastrophic defeat this month has been hard to watch – but I had to laugh when departing Scottish leader Jim Murphy turned on union bruiser Len McCluskey saying the Unite leader “would back the loser in a one-horse race.”

McCluskey was instrumental in electing Ed Miliband five years ago and now he is backing Andy Burnham. With friends like this who needs enemies?

Burnham is an accomplished media performer and clearly an intelligent man – but he comes with lots of baggage. He was at the Treasury when Labour let spending rip and at health during a series of appalling NHS scandals. He is Miliband part two. Certainly the Conservatives are relishing the prospect of a Burnham victory.

Just fast forward 12 months to a future Prime Minister’s Question Time. Burnham asks yet another question as to why the evil Tories are abolishing the NHS (they’ll keep banging this drum even though no one is listening).

Cameron rises to his feet: “I will take no lessons on the NHS from a man who presided over the Mid Staffordshire scandal.” Game over.