At the best of times, this is not an industry that is gracious. Such a truism is not exclusive to public relations, but never is it more apposite than when it comes to an agency involved in a crisis.
The carping that goes on from the sidelines when an agency is handling a crisis beggars belief – sometimes deservedly, often not. The problem is that from the outside it is virtually impossible to define success and understand fully the communication struggles that an agency and the company it is acting for are faced with.
Take the recent investor uprising at Alliance Trust. The chief executive Katherine Garrett-Cox emerged at the end as if she had been trampled by a herd of elephants. But despite everything that the shareholder-activists could throw at her, she kept her job. Is that success?
Probably, but at what cost? It is quite possible Garrett-Cox knew she was in for a bruising, knew what concessions she would have to eventually give in the way of board seats, but could only do it at the end of the battle rather than the start.
Tactically, Garrett-Cox could say she played a blinder, although I suspect this tested even her tolerance levels. From the inside, just nudging the needle of public opinion in the right direction – and against the odds – can be enough to define success and convince a board that the situation is under control, even though from an external perspective these small steps in the right direction are often too subtle to see.
Then there was Thomas Cook, where from the outside it looked as if the group had learned its comms skills from The Beano. It appeared totally out of kilter with public opinion over the way it failed to show compassion to the family of Bobby and Christi Shepherd, who died on holiday in Corfu.
Yet this problem had bounced between three chief executives over a nine-year period. Peter Fankhauser had only been CEO for a few months when the situation blew up on his watch. The ability to make a quick response had probably been strangled by lawyers and contrary opinion at the highest level in the company.
I have sympathy for him; in these situations it is up to the chairman to take charge. In the case of Thomas Cook, his tenure stretched far enough back to have oversight of all the issues. In the travel industry, the affair will have a lasting legacy showing how not to behave in a crisis.
The heavy-footed approach of Thomas Cook contrasts with that taken by Nick Varney, chief executive of Merlin, when he apologised after the terrible roller-coaster crash at Alton Towers that left four people seriously injured at the theme park his company runs. He tackled it head-on and, in doing so, accepted the legal liabilities from facing up to the issue when he said safety measures at the attraction "weren’t adequate".
As we all know, the best way to handle a crisis is for it to never leave the boardroom. That can’t be the definition of success in a crisis but it does avoid the carping.
John Waples is senior MD and UK head of strategic comms at FTI Consulting