Crisis Management

Brands in the age of condolence: Part 3

As Benjamin Franklin allegedly said: nothing is certain except death and taxes. The death of Her Majesty the Queen may have been an unsavoury topic to discuss, but at 96 and increasingly frail, it is surprising that so many companies appear to have been caught off guard by the news.

And none more so than Centre Parcs, which proudly declares ‘this is family togetherness’ on its website while encouraging visitors to book early. It certainly didn’t feel like ‘family togetherness’ when the holiday company announced plans to close its five UK sites for 24 hours from 10am Monday.

Guests, whom Centre Parcs hoped would ‘understand our decision to support our Queen on her final journey’, would either need to leave for a night and return or go home early or delay their arrival by 24 hours. Unsurprisingly, guests didn’t understand. Did anybody?

As Kate Hartley, co-founder of crisis management platform Polpeo, points out, if Centre Parcs was closing as a mark of respect and to allow colleagues to watch the funeral, surely it could afford the same opportunity to guests, rather than turfing them out.

‘From the minute Centre Parcs said they’d close to guests for the day, a U-turn was inevitable,’ Hartley adds. ‘How on earth did they expect families with children to decamp for the night, mid-holiday? It shows a lack of empathy: it’s not hard to put yourself in the position of family and imagine what it might mean in practical terms to find somewhere else to stay for a night you’re already organised and paid for.’

And so it came to pass. Less than 24 hours later, Centre Parcs announced that ‘on reflection’ it recognised this might be ‘extremely inconvenient’ and performed a U-turn. Guests already in situ could stay, although its facilities would remain closed, but anybody planning to arrive on a Monday should still stay away until the Tuesday.

It is hard to believe that anybody from Centre Parcs’ comms team – or even customer service – was in the room when the first decision was made, or that any agency would have advised such a course of action. Perhaps they did caution against the move, but were simply ignored?

Yet the fact that nobody appears to have thought in advance about what the company might do in the event of the Queen’s death – or even ‘road tested’ its response – appears rather naive. This was not an unexpected crisis: it was an imminent issue for which preparations could have been made.

No wonder an operations manager at pub chain Young’s was boasting on LinkedIn that Fuller’s communications team, led by the redoubtable Georgina Wald, had prepared its response months ago, and simply put it into action. (Check out its home page: Fuller’s welcomes the new King, with an image of a sign for its pub The Kings Head.) Other organisations seem to have been flailing around, baffled by the news, when this seemed an ideal opportunity to have one of those oven-ready comms plans standing by.

Advance consideration and preparations might have stopped British Cycling from recommending that cyclists did not, er, cycle during Monday’s funeral, or indeed embark on any ‘formal domestic cycling activities’ on the day. Cue rapid backpedaling after a flurry of abuse on social media.

I am also not sure why appreciating guinea pigs and mourning the Queen are mutually exclusive, but, in another weird decision, the Guinea Pig Appreciation Week has been postponed. Still, along with tea brand Whittard, I am sure these organisations will ‘never forget her’.