Being human – mental well-being lessons for Thomas Cook PR

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This post started out as a critique of the response by Thomas Cook to the tragic deaths of the Shepherd children in 2006. It supported Andy Barr writing at The Drum who argued a failure to be human, and the FT conclusion that the company mislaid its moral compass in putting legal advice over the paying public.

In reading further about the terrible experiences of the parents, there were many opportunities for Thomas Cook to engage in genuine public relations. Not once did the firm appear to ask what they could do to help or protect the family during this tragedy or in the time since.

But it is easy to point out the limitations in the public relations response, especially when you aren’t on the inside. Critical reflection can be made on the mismatch between the promise on the Thomas Cook website that the company could be trusted and its behaviour when things went wrong. In contrast, the family has shown great restraint and dignity, whilst the company has shown a lack of empathy throughout.

But in thinking further about the case, I recalled a post I wrote last October (on World Mental Health Day) about public relations as dirty work that inherently involves stress and consequently may be expected to cause mental health problems.

It must have been stressful to work in the Thomas Cook PR function these past few weeks. Of course, the pressure is nothing like the anguish experienced by the parents of Christi and Bobbi. However, any human being should have found it hard to act in a way that contributed further to the family’s pain.

Yes, it is our job to protect our employers/clients, but this should be possible to do in a compassionate way. When necessary, we need to be able to advocate harsh truths to those with corporate power to ensure that sensitivity is the first priority. Not being able to take control of a situation or feel comfortable with the decisions of others, may impact on our mental well-being. To handle such feelings of cognitive dissonance, we rely on coping strategies.

In the case of Thomas Cook, perhaps the fact that the company was found not legally responsible dominated discussion rather than considering any moral, or even contractual obligation to its customers. Did collective decision making inure individual members of the in-house group PR, agency and in-house UK PR teams? Do they claim to have been pressured by the lawyers or corporate executives in determining the response – reflecting the narrative found in industry criticisms of PR responses (including Barr); although these may have been co-operative or collaborative relationships. Or maybe those involved are content with the  apologies evident on the company’s Facebook page or can assuage cognitive dissonance by blaming the Daily Mail which has led the media onslaught.

If you are a junior member of the team, however, you may not be privy to what went on behind closed doors, yet it is likely you fielded calls from hostile journalists and read angry comments online. At the least, you were one of the 27,000 global employees likely to have faced comments or questions from family and friends about working for Thomas Cook at a time like this. One wonders whether those tasked with internal communications and media relations were trained and helped to deal with any personal or professional anxieties they may have experienced or just expected to issue prescribed statements.

Ironically, Register and Larkin’s Risk Issues and Crisis Management book from 2008 relates as an example of good practice, how Thomas Cook Holidays handled a fatal coach crash in South Africa in 1999 by focusing “first and foremost on the needs of the victims and survivors of the crash and their families”. This suggests the stress of crisis management can be ameliorated by a value-driven response.

Perhaps the change in approach is cultural. It was only in March this year, that Thomas Cook announced it was using the Exonaut Risk and Incident Manager tool to “manage all forms of risk” including reputational in accordance with the international ISP 31000 standard. Such systems should help in decision making, although they can also focus on impersonal calculations of organisational consequences at the expense of valuing how situations impact real people.

As PR practitioners we need to be able to put ourselves in the position of others, and have empathy for their situations if we believe we play a role in managing an organisation’s reputation. In advocating ethical, moral, value-driven responses as the “conscience of an organisation” and a “buffer” for others, as CIPR President, Sarah Pinch advocates, it is natural that we will face competing pressures.

Earlier this year, the CIPR State of the Profession 2015 report noted “dangerously high levels of workplace stress” among senior managers in PR. At the same time, PRCA and PRWeek revealed research showing a third of the PR industry has “suffered from, or been diagnosed with, mental ill health”.  Both studies seem to present stress and mental ill health as problems to be addressed, rather than normal human conditions.

It is positive to see stress and mental well-being being discussed as I called for last October. Further, we need to promote positive coping strategies and normalise rather than stigmatise PR practitioners who experience mental health conditions, or feel the strain of workplace pressures. Let’s discuss drug and alcohol abuse within the occupation as well as depression, OCD, anxiety, phobias, eating disorders, self-harming, compulsive sexual behaviour, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, autism spectrum disorders, Alzheimer’s and dementia. After all, PR practitioners are active in campaigning around these various conditions and many more as professional communicators. It is about time we publicly recognised our own experiences and take a lead as an inclusive occupation and community of practice.

I am addressing mental health issues and well-being in updating my chapter on risk, issues and crisis management in the 5th edition of the Public Relations Handbook.  When researching this blog post, I have searched dozens of crisis communications texts and whilst emotional intelligence is sometimes mentioned, consideration of the importance of our own mental-well being is lacking.

Within public relations, crisis management is commonly seen as the pinnacle of professional competence; positioned as a strategic role, carrying heroic connotations not often associated with the occupation. Interestingly, while the names of organisations deemed to have handled a crisis ineffectively face public opprobrium (and a legacy label of bad practice in PR textbooks), individuals involved in the situation may find such experiences are career boosting. Being able to share experiences as confessional lessons learned seem to be appealing to future employers, or for appearances as conference speakers. This suggests that the stress of a crisis situation is a development opportunity within a public relations career; something that makes you stronger.

As I wrote in my original chapter, such simplistic narrative tends to create “a mythology of crisis management and limits the depth of analysis and reflection regarding actual practice concerning managing risk, issues and crisis situations”.

Our modern risk society is one where PR practitioners are operating in a 24:7 dynamic global communications environment which brings with it increasing pressures for us both professionally and personally. If we are to operate effectively within such conditions, we need to be realistic about the impact on our own mental health and recognise the importance of what being human means in doing our job.