Go Back

View from the street: the art of communicating a u turn

Centre parcs blunder


David Gaffney reflects on the circumstances that can lead to companies making serious communications errors.

Senior partner

Coronavirus was a relatively new concept when Britannia Hotels showed firms how not to respond to it, displaying a Fawlty-esque approach to employee relations and inviting a level of opprobrium that was duly delivered by a baying Twitterati.

The company had sent letters to staff at the Coylumbridge Hotel, informing them that, with immediate effect “your employment has been terminated and your services are no longer required…You are asked to vacate the hotel accommodation immediately, returning any company property”. Management claimed to be “taking the latest government advice” in doing so.

Center Parcs made a similarly ill-judged manoeuvre in the days before the Queen’s funeral, with a slight variation on the theme, in that it was holidaymakers who were told to vacate their accommodation, to allow site staff to pay their respects to the late monarch on the day of her funeral.

The reversal of those decisions – each within a matter of hours – was triggered not by a moment of autonomous, managerial self-reflection, but by the public outcry that accompanied the actions.

Of course, mistakes are inevitable, in any company and in every sector. Even firms with the best governance procedures will occasionally lapse into bad judgement or make a wrong-headed decision. And reasonable people – customers and employees alike – understand that.

What is harder to forgive and forget, and what Britannia Hotels and Center Parcs have in common here, is that they compounded their original blunders in the act of trying to make amends.

Britannia claimed the letters had been “an administrative error” and apologised for “any upset caused”. Center Parcs thanked its guests “for helping us create the unique opportunity for our team to be part of this historic event,” but neglected to say sorry for trying to cut their holiday short in the first place.

A generous reading of these attempts to atone is that they were clumsy. At worst, they were duplicitous (an administrative error, really?), dishonest, and more concerned with deflecting responsibility than accepting it.

People don’t forget. We associate brands and individuals with their missteps long after the moment has passed and long after they would hope we had all forgotten.

In saying that, we do tend to remember fulsome and genuine apologies, too. It’s a pity the leaders of some big and otherwise successful commercial enterprises still don’t appear to understand that.


The week ahead – sign up to receive our summary

Our weekly View From the Street, alongside a summary of the news and a look-ahead to the coming week, is sent to our subscribers every Monday morning. To get it first, sign up on our website, scrolling down to “Subscribe to our briefings”.

Get in touch

Want to find out how we can help your business? View our services here, and get in touch if you want to find out more about Charlotte Street Partners.