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Humanity and humility – the importance of prioritising victims   

Image: 231080553 © Lorna

This week, the family of Wendy Jones told the BBC they want answers. 

In 2019, Wendy died after an air conditioning duct fell on guests at a Pontins resort in Somerset. The police investigation is still ongoing, but in the five years since the incident, Mrs Jones’s family has never received any correspondence from Britannia head office, the owners of the Pontins resort. 

A sudden tragedy will place an organisation under a number of pressures. There will often be a legal dimension, a regulatory dimension, a police investigation and a deluge of media requests. These can be difficult to manage, particularly when internal resources are limited. 

Because of this, organisations can be prone to forgetting that chief among all these responsibilities following a sudden incident is their responsibility to victims and their families.  

Indeed, there are a number of lessons that can be learnt from the ways in which Britannia Hotels have managed the fallout of the Somerset incident: 

Lasting impact of the immediate response 

A sudden incident will affect a victim’s family in a profound way, and an organisation will be on the receiving end of a wave of complex, difficult emotions. As is the way with most sudden, unexpected events, you may not be able to offer complete answers to a family’s questions, which is why some organisations decide it’s better to say nothing at all, rolling up the drawbridge instead. 

Again, this puts the organisation’s needs before the victim’s. It is worth therefore simply putting yourself in a grieving family’s shoes – how would you want to be communicated with? Condolences and an offer of support would be a good starting point. Being able to act to human tragedy in a human way is fundamental to an open dialogue, which will become important as you endeavour to find some form of resolution down the line.   

It may be appropriate to accept responsibility before a finding of fault 

Denying responsibility can be an artificial exercise when an incident has been highly publicised, e.g. when the factual basis of the tragedy is fairly certain, or images of the event are circulating on social media. While questions of liability should always be considered in concert with your lawyers, refusing to accept any responsibility other than when forced to by a court will impress neither the victim’s family nor the public.   

Communicate with compassion 

A callous response will only compound a tragedy and a refusal to engage with a grieving family not only reflects a profound lack of empathy;  it makes a story even more newsworthy. Indeed, the media will not be as interested in a story of a corporation acting  with compassion, but they will be drawn to stories where families seeking answers are fobbed off.  

Consult external advisors 

A sudden incident is any organisation’s worst nightmare, which is why it’s important to lean on external advisers set up in advance. Lawyers, insurers and crisis PR specialists will be able to offer insights into the likely outcomes of pursuing certain strategies and ensure you can communicate with victims without exposing your organisation to unnecessary legal or reputational risk. 

Apologies are powerful 

When confronted by tragedy, most people want to apologise; however, some companies are prone to considering apologies through a legal lens only, leading to either contorted or clinical communications, such as the classic ‘non-apology apology’. It’s therefore important to note that using the word ‘sorry’ doesn’t always mean admitting liability – it will depend on the context and wording. A genuine apology is an act of human empathy, and when done properly can bring closure to victims and their families, reset relationships, and clear a path for people to move on with their lives.  

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