Secret Marketer: Sometimes doing what’s right for the customer is more important than cutting legal risk

Over the past few weeks, we have seen a couple of brands put under public scrutiny as a result of horrific accidents.

I was deeply moved by the plight of the family whose children died while on holiday in Corfu in 2006, and was saddened by the terrible accident at Alton Towers, which left several people seriously injured.

As a professional marketer, I have also watched with interest the two brands at the centre of the incidents: one, Thomas Cook, a case study of how not to handle a PR crisis; the other, Alton Towers’ owner Merlin Entertainments, doing a much better job.

I can imagine the discussions in the boardrooms of these companies, with the lawyers of both urging a cautious, minimal-comment approach, whereas others would have been extolling the need for a more open response. Sometimes following risk-averse legal advice is necessary, but executives have a responsibility to consider whether that’s the right way to react – something that’s easier to see clearly when the circumstances aren’t so serious.

On a completely different level, I was recently due to travel on a domestic business flight, which was cancelled, so I was moved to a later departure that was then delayed by three hours. While these things happen, they are hugely inconvenient for the traveller. But how the company responds to the situation leads to how you subsequently judge them.

First, there were 15 business people in my group and seven of us had loyalty cards that gave us and a guest access to the airport lounge. As we were delayed by four hours in total, we asked whether all 15 of us could access the lounge with our 14 passes, in order to do some work. Alas not. As was explained to us later on, an airport is a dangerous place, and it would endanger passenger safety if airline employees were empowered to use their own initiative – instead they had rules for a reason, and 14 passes means 14 passes.

They were also unable to apologise for our four-hour delay, as their bosses had advised them never to apologise for situations beyond their control (it appears our delay was due to the weather, although that was never explained).

This scenario is, of course, of a completely different order of magnitude from the Thomas Cook and Alton Towers examples – but what is common and of interest to the professional marketer is how our brand is judged in the ‘court of public opinion’. Sometimes we just have to overrule the lawyers and the risk assessors and do what is right for the customer.

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