Associate Director, Stewart Argo shares his thoughts on why Center Parcs U-turn on their decision was not a PR disaster.

For those that missed it, upmarket holiday camp company Center Parcs told its customers they’d have to leave their accommodation for the day of the Queen’s funeral. What a way to redefine ‘vacation’! Then a few hours later they changed their mind after the inevitable outcry.

This will probably be cited for years to come as a Terrible PR Disaster. I’m not so sure, and here’s why.

  1. It wasn’t a PR decision. Okay, this might sound like pedantry but it matters. It was an operational decision, presumably approved by those at the highest level of the company. The distinction I’m making is that an organisation’s reputation isn’t just a matter of what they say and how they say it, but what they do and how they do it. This is where reputation is really tested. Sure, PR is part of the mix; but it’s not the main determinant. (I’m speculating here but my guess is that the PR folk would have advised against the decision to close.)
  2. I’d be amazed if it makes any difference to their sales. Some people may never book again. Some people will find the whole thing unfortunate while still pressing ‘confirm booking’. Some people will regard them as a bit tainted but give it no more thought. But are we going to see a meaningful drop in bookings or spend? I seriously doubt it. That doesn’t mean of course that companies can blithely go around making all sorts of blunders. Center Parcs need to be extra careful for the foreseeable future otherwise a well-meaning single blip in corporate sensibility becomes something more serious.

Much better of course to avoid such situations completely. So, what could Center Parcs have done differently? (I recognise they may have done these things but I can only go by what we see from the outside.)

  1. Get some outside counsel from a trusted adviser. We often find that companies use PR consultancies such as ourselves for the benefit of that independent outside view. To many, we are a critical friend. In the jargon, we do ‘boundary spanning’: one foot in our client’s camp and one foot in the wider world. I imagine that if they had tried this decision out on others they would have had some helpful advice that would have prevented this nonsense.
  2. Prepare and test. I feel secure saying that Center Parcs doesn’t have a risk register that mentions a change in the monarchy as being something they need to deal with. That’s fair enough: it’s absurd to think an organisation can prepare for every eventuality, although many try to, producing rigid and impractical plans for specific scenarios. It is more effective to be ready for anything by creating and rehearsing flexible approaches. And while process is hugely important, it’s essential to remember understanding and empathy: an element that seems to be missing or at least severely skewed in Center Parcs’ handling.
  3. Recognise that corporate PR and stakeholder management can matter as much as consumer PR. We sometimes find that B2C companies are much less concerned about such issues because they don’t directly benefit their sales. That’s understandable. I even make the point above that I don’t think this will hurt them commercially. But can you imagine the scenes inside CP HQ this week? There is a cost, even if it’s just in managing the situation, taking valuable senior exec time away from other priorities.

My last thought is…apart from the commercials, do Center Parcs know what their reputation even is? How do they compare to their competitors, non-industry peers or indeed any of the country’s most-loved and most-valuable brands? You can’t measure a change in perception without a benchmark, and you can only do the benchmark before the incident or issue. Which means, even if only once a year, every company that values knowing where it stands among its competitors should carry out some basic reputation research.

Last night, BIG Partnership’s Media Relations Director, Charlene Sweeney, appeared on The Nine to share her expert opinion on what Center Parcs could have done differently and how she would have approached the situation –

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