Category Archives: dodging accountability

Bankers’ contemptuous response to defrauded jockeys


It is always reassuring when large organisations are unable to kick a story into the long grass, particularly when they use the oldest public relations tricks in the book.

The banking industry has failed dismally to end coverage of the revelation that some £200,000 had been stolen from jockeys in the UK. The money was withdrawn over the counter from cashiers, possibly using fraudulent documents.

In fact the banking industry’s response has had the opposite effect. Broadcasters and print journalists are now asking: If jockeys are being advised to abandon their High Street bank accounts, are any other bank customers safe.

It is almost certain to lead to some uncomfortable revelations about the scale of the problem.

Much of the credit for keeping the story in the public eye – it is now on the second day of widespread coverage, including a full page story in The Times – is due to Paul Struthers.

A veteran of racing and public relations who is now chief executive of the Professional Jockeys Association, he has played a blinder for his members, speaking brilliantly and deploying intelligent and eloquent jockeys who have been victims.

But, the banks have only themselves to blame.

Rather than seeing this as a banking challenge, they approached the story as a public relations problem, using tactics beloved of all large organisations on the defensive.

The first aim is ensure that no individual from a company appears on the media to answer direct questions.

As more than one bank was involved in the alleged frauds, the banks could hide behind one of their joint organisations – Financial Fraud Action (FFA).

This is a tried and tested trick because industry wide bodies can’t talk about the actions of individual members – so any comments tend to be generalisations that are hard to challenge.

The next trick is to avoid appearing in person. A statement cannot be questioned or directly challenged.

So when Radio5 Live produced an item on the subject, the FFA did not appear directly –

The FFA’s statement was a classic of corporate deception.

“Banks take fraud extremely seriously and stopped most of all the attempted fraud last year. Fraudsters may try to use stolen or false documents to commit their crimes. Banks do have systems in place to prevent this.

The spate of crimes targeting jockeys suggests fraudsters may have gained access to data relating to these victims.

It is important that any organisation holding personal data take steps to ensure it is safeguarded.”


It is amazing how many corporate statements start with “we are taking xyz very seriously.” The fact that they are using this hack sentence from the beginner’s PR handbook actually shows they are not taking the subject seriously at all.

The next step – found in virtually every corporate statement – is to state that the problem is under control. So this statement says that “banks have systems in place.”

Then there is the subtle use of tenses. The statement says that “fraudsters may try to use stolen….” and that “the spate of crimes targeting jockeys suggests fraudsters may have gained access…..”

Using the word “may” makes it possible to leave ideas with the audience – in this case suggesting others may be responsible for the theft of information – while remaining unaccountable if the claim turns out to be inaccurate.

A third element of these statements is that they are drafted to ensure no institution or senior executive is identified or takes responsibility.

Finally these statements invariably end with a portentous general comment which adds up to nothing substantive. The comment that “it is important that any organisation holding personal data take steps to ensure it is safeguarded” is a meaningless truism.

If you have read my blogs, the use of these techniques will be no surprise.

All too often the technique works. But fortunately, in this case, the rather cleverer tactics of Mr Struthers are ensuring that the banks are losing control of the debate.


How Smart is Tim being?

Invariably I find myself examining the way in which large organisations seek to deceive us by using evasive and misleading language.

But there are occasions when senior executives speak directly and with clarity – and that, not least because it is so rare, can be just as revealing.

And it is particularly interesting when the senior figures of one organisation change the approach from the former to the latter.

Take what has happened this week at the Southern Health Authority when its chairman was questioned on the BBC about the decision to give a new job to the organisation’s chief executive Katrina Percy.

Ms Percy had been under pressure to resign since the publication of a highly critical report last December on Southern Health’s failure to investigate hundreds of death.

Initially Southern Health resorted to a long and evasive statement in which its lawyers and PR department used every trick in the book to evade responsibility. I highlighted this at the time –

Eventually the trust’s chairman was replaced but, despite robust criticism from relatives of those who died and politicians, Ms Percy remained in her job until last week; then she was moved to a new £240,000 a year job which had been specifically created for her.

What is particularly interesting is the way Smart, who took over as chair four months ago, responded to questions on Ms Percy’s new job.

And I should say here that Smart has worked in senior positions in the public and private sector for many years so knows what he is doing when he appears before a television camera – and he also many lawyers and PR executives to provide him with evasive answers to every possible question.

Look at this exchange with a BBC interviewer.

  1. Did the new job exist before Katrina (Percy) took it?

Smart. The work needed to be done.

  1. That is not a yes or no. Did the new job exist before Katrina took it?

Smart. No

  1. Did you advertise that job so other people could apply?

Smart. No

  1. Was Katrina the only candidate?

Smart. She is uniquely qualified for it.

  1. Was she the only candidate?

Smart. Yes

  1. To many people that is not the case. The case is that over the next few months the work that we have asked Karina to do needed to be done in any event.


There is enough corporate evasion in some of these answers to demonstrate that he had been well rehearsed by his minders.

These answers include phrases such as “the work needed to be done” and also saying that Percy was “uniquely qualified.” The latter remark is meaningless as the job was not advertised – you only find out if someone is uniquely qualified by testing them against other candidates.

But most interesting is the way he only went through the motions of corporate evasion and gave direct answers after only the slightest pressure.

Those of us who have listened to politicians and business leaders answer difficult questions over the years know that even the clearest answer is submerged in enough verbiage to disguise its true intent.

It may be that Smart has decided on a new strategy of openness – probably not. Or that he panicked and blundered – unlikely.

Or it could be that his direct answers are designed reflect his unhappiness at what has been done. His intervention has certainly ensured that Ms Percy will be under much greater pressure that before he gave the interview.

So it is at least worth a sporting bet that there may have been a division of opinion about whether to give Ms Percy her new job.

And there may be some interesting revelations to come about this decision was eventually taken.



Southern Health’s integrity?

A review into Southern Health NHS Foundation has found that it failed to investigate more than 1,000 unexpected deaths and most other papers

The review, commissioned by NHS England and carried out by audit firm Mazars, was launched following the death of Connor Sparrowhawk at one of the trust’s treatment units in Oxford. He suffered an epileptic seizure and drowned in the bath – the coroner ruled the death had been preventable.

It is not for me to comment in this blog on the merits of the report but to look at the public relations techniques the Trust has used to respond – and to wonder whether their approach actually does their case more harm than good.

Southern Health’s statement – which has the smell of something drafted by the public relations department overseen by lawyers – is a classic response used by all bureaucracies facing similar challenges.

In some of my earlier blogs – under the bureaucratic evasion tag – I have traced the way these techniques are used. Here are two examples.

If you look at Southern Health’s statement (which is at the end of this blog) you will see that they follow the predictable path.

The strategy is always the same: stress the commitment to the highest standards; undermine the credibility of the report; say that improvements have already been implemented so the report is also out of date; and absolve individuals from responsibility by suggesting that the problem is to do with procedures.

Look at how the statement starts. In the first par, they say that “we want to avoid unnecessary anxiety amongst the people we support, their carers and families as their welfare is our priority.” It is a classic statement of the obvious that means nothing.

Then they move on to undermine the credibility of the report by saying that “there are serious concerns about the draft report’s interpretation of the evidence.”

This may or may not be true in this case – I would merely point out that this is also a hugely effective way of deflecting attention from the core comments of the report, and it would be more credible as a comment if it wasn’t used on almost every occasion.

The following paragraph is particularly interesting.

“We fully accept that our reporting processes following a patient death have not always been good enough. We have taken considerable measures to strengthen our investigation and learning from deaths including increased monitoring and scrutiny.”

Not another comment made by the Trust: “The outcome of the inquest evidenced that Connor’s death was preventable and, as a Trust, we have taken learning from this to make sure that this doesn’t happen again.”

This combines two public relations strategies. It accepts criticism of “reporting processes” – in other words accepting that procedures are flawed, but that individuals should have no responsibility.

And it says that “considerable measures” have been taken to improve matters – again a tried and tested response to make the report seem out of date.

Note too that the response is full of the vacuous “we.” It is not entirely clear who the “we” are.

There is no mention of any individual names in the response even though, according to at least one newspaper report, there was specific criticism of “a failure of leadership” under chief executive Katrina Perry.

Leadership is carried out by individuals not institutions yet the Trust’s response avoids any comment on personal responsibility or accountability.

The vacuous “we” is also a slight advance on the passive voice which is often used by management in this situation. Using the passive makes it easier to avoid linking an executive to an action – though using “we” with an active word can only be the most marginal of improvements.

I have no idea whether Southern Health’s defence is reasonable or credible. But I am certain that by using hack PR techniques and legalistic evasion makes their case sound less credible and plausible.


The Southern Health statement

Southern Health NHS Foundation Trust said: “We would not usually comment on a leaked draft report. However, we want to avoid unnecessary anxiety amongst the people we support, their carers and families as their welfare is our priority.

“There are serious concerns about the draft report’s interpretation of the evidence. We fully accept that our reporting processes following a patient death have not always been good enough. We have taken considerable measures to strengthen our investigation and learning from deaths including increased monitoring and scrutiny.

“The review has not assessed the quality of care provided by the Trust. Instead it looked at the way in which the Trust recorded and investigated deaths of people with whom we had one or more contacts in the preceding 12 months. In almost all cases referred to in the report, the Trust was not the main provider of care.

“We would stress the draft report contains no evidence of more deaths than expected in the last four years of people with mental health needs or learning disabilities for the size and age of the population we serve.

“When the final report is published by NHS England we will review the recommendations and make any further changes necessary to ensure the processes through which we report, investigate and learn from deaths are of the highest possible standard.

“If you are directly affected by this issue, call this NHS number: 0300 003 0025.”

Nike episode humiliates Coe


Another day, another disaster for Sebastian Coe, the president of the IAAF, as he tries to blame “mangled perception” for his decision to resign as a Nike ambassador – an explanation that fails to silence his critics

It is but the latest stage in a series of largely self-inflicted blunders which have done profound damage to his personal image and reputation as a corporate operator.

This has happened because, instead of addressing the actual issues raised by those investigating malpractice in athletics, he has chosen to defend his sport by launching an aggressive – not to mention crude and clumsy – public relations campaign.

His responses to the latest crisis suggest that he is failed to learn from what has happened since August when he condemned media investigations into allegations of doping as a “declaration of war” on athletics.

Yesterday Lord Coe stepped down from his position as a Nike ambassador, finally giving in to pressure that has been building since his election in August as IAAF president.

However, instead of accepting that the concerns raised about this clash of interest were legitimate, he fell back the flimsy technical legal defence that the IAAF’s ethics committee had said he could continue in both jobs. How convenient that he can pass the buck elsewhere.

When he resigned, he insisted that his decision was not due to a clash of interests but because “the perception and the reality have become horribly mangled” – clearly blaming the media coverage.

This is a classic public relations ploy – if a rather crude one – to explain a policy U-turn. First pass on the responsibility then blame coverage rather than substance.

But it looks as if won’t convince the doubters because it sounds so implausible.

And it shows too the way that Lord Coe has lost his previously brilliant instinctive touch with the public and media.

This has happened in a period of months when, his approach to criticism about him and his sport has been driven by a public relations and crisis management strategy, which senior figures and organisations have used in recent years when under pressure – but which are now starting to look less than subtle.

Indeed the extent to which Lord Coe has been relying on public relations was revealed this week with the revelation that “UK Sport, a government-funded public body which also receives cash from Britain’s National Lottery, contributed 63,000 pounds ($95,000) to a British public relations company for its work on Coe’s campaign.”

It is not for me to comment on the legality or the morality of this – though the story can hardly be said to enhance Lord Coe’s already tarnished reputation.

But it does reinforce my suspicions about the way he has performed in recent months – both as a candidate for the Presidency and since he has taken office – to allegations about his sport and the IAAF’s role in drug testing.

I have traced the PR-driven strategy that he has adopted since August in a series of blog

I don’t know the extent to which his strategy over this period was driven by himself or Vero Communications, the agency that has been hired to help his campaign to head the IAAF.

But it is possible to assess whether it has worked.

His tactics have been so obvious that even an occasional observer like me was able to highlight the way each clunky element has been put in place since August.

While it may have given him the short-term gain of an election victory, look at what has happened to his reputation since August.

Then he decided that the best approach was to get down and dirty and accuse those who criticise the IAAF’s approach to drug cheats of making “a declaration of war on my sport.”

That remark has come back to haunt him, with the latest revelations on drug cheating in Russia making them look particularly misjudged.

Moreover, he has lost his standing as a trusted man standing above the narrow vested interests – a status he had maintained brilliantly until earlier this year.

A public relations driven approach can sound so good in theory and there may be a short term gain but there is always a heavy price to pay, particularly if it is implemented so crudely.


Ian Ritchie – the worst type of sports chief executive


Ian Ritchie, the chief executive of the England’s Rugby Football Union, has done what I thought was impossible; he has made me feel sympathy for the England rugby coach Stuart Lancaster who he had just removed from his position.

As Ritchie was eagerly talking about scouring the world for a new coach that he would take full responsibility for the appointment and that the new coach would report directly to him, it was left to Lancaster to say honourably that the main responsibility for England’s failure to get out of the group stage was his as head coach.

Ritchie said: “I’m the chief executive, I run the organisation, of course I feel personally about what’s gone on.”

This was a rather different line to that which he adopted in early September when the Daily Telegraph ran a story headlined: ‘Ian Ritchie to shoulder blame if England fail to win World Cup.’ A photograph of him was captioned: ‘Ian Ritchie says the buck stops with him.’

The article was reporting on a speech made by Ritchie at the Soccerex Global Convention, in which he promised to take responsibility for appointing Lancaster if the team fell short. He said : ‘I think you’re the one that takes responsibility for it, because, if you’re the chief executive, you have to look at that. I appointed Stuart. I was the one who believed he was the right person for the job.”

As one listens to what he said yesterday, one can only think: some buck – some stop.

But we should not be surprised because Ritchie’s behaviour was totally in line with that of most chief executives working in sport.

Particularly in the football Premiership, they are there taking credit for a managerial appointment; when there is success, they are all too happy to bask in reflected glory; but when things go wrong, they are ready to wash their hands of all responsibility for anything that has gone wrong.

I am not sure what the ratio of sacked premiership managers to sacked chief executives is in the Premiership.

But I doubt that there have been many occasions when chief executives have taken responsibility and fallen on their swords when managers they have appointed have not delivered.

It seems that one of the key jobs of a chief coach is to carry the can for any problems even if they are the ultimate responsibility of the chief executives.

It is hard to avoid the conclusion that they are the ultimate modern-day whore – holding power without responsibility.

In fairness, some do have real knowledge of the sport they are involved in and some ceos have the instinct and confidence to trust those colleagues with real expertise – but this is an allegation that could never be laid at Ritchie’s door, who came to rugby after running the Lawn Tennis Association.

As Sir Clive Woodward put it succinctly in the Daily Mail: “I simply do not believe Ritchie, who does not know a ruck from a maul, is the right man to lead this appointment (of the new coach), let alone have the new man report into him in the years which follow.”

So logically, unless it is possible to find someone with a unique skill-set encompassing a knowledge of global rugby coaching and financial/business skills, the top jobs must be split into chief executive (commerce) and chief executive (rugby) who would appoint and be responsible for the coach.

It is surely possible for the board to sort out those rare occasions on which there are disputes – banks and businesses have often operated on this basis where the skills complement each other.

It may be that the review into England’s world cup performance, due out next week, reminds Ritchie of the promise he made in September.

I wouldn’t be on it or the next England coach following the advice of the review. Whoever gets the job will have a pretty good idea of what needs to be done and follow their own judgement with their own staff.

And he will also know how Ritchie has behaved since England was knocked out. In what is a clear warning to the England coach’s successor of what he is likely to expect, Sir Clive condemned those who were happy to let Lancaster twist in the wind.

He wrote that “those responsible for his (Lancaster’s) appointment, and who have backed him and been happy to reap praise in the good times, should be looking in the mirror today and feeling very uncomfortable over what has happened.”

So they should – but it is unlikely that they will; when it comes to performance assessment Ritchie is likely to behave like a typical sports ceo; taking the maximum credit when things go right and minimum responsibility when they go wrong.

How Lord Coe manipulates the media


Now that the damning report from the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) on doping in Russia has been published the pressure will be on Lord Coe, the President of the IAAF to take action.

As a former PR man, presentation will be key to the way Lord Coe responds and tries to protect its interests. His remarks in the 48 hours before publication gives some clues about how the athletics authorities will mount their defence.

And we need to be very careful that Lord Coe does not use his skill in the black arts to evade and avoid the consequences of the report.

His latest remarks suggest that the IAAF is in full crisis management mode when it responds to a report which is expected to reveal details of systematic cheating, cover-ups and corruption reaching right to the top of the sport’s ruling body.

This is in stark contrast to the counter-attacking approach used by Lord Coe, who has condemned media investigations into allegations of doping as a “declaration of war”, and who was the strongest possible defender of the man he replaced, Lamine Diack, who he called the sport’s “spiritual” leader

All the signs are that from now Lord Coe will operate the crisis management tactics adopted by all those in power from health authorities to the police, local authorities and companies facing critical reports.

I have detailed this in many of my blogs – look at the categories on bureaucratic evasion, dodging accountability and the principles of deception.

So, how is his crisis management likely to work?

We have seen clear indications in the last couple of days.

First, get your retaliation in first in the hope that you can at least set the context in which the criticism will be heard. In fairness, one can hardly blame Lord Coe for doing this as Richard McLaren, one of the report’s authors was widely quoted before publication in interviews where he said that it would show a “different scale of corruption.”

Lord Coe has responded with characteristic professionalism using some effective sound bites. His comments include saying that athletics faces a “long road to redemption,” that “these are dark days for our sport,” and that he “more determined than ever to rebuild the trust in our sport.”

It is a clear attempt to reset the agenda in his favour.

Just as importantly, he has used his interviews to implement another key element of the crisis strategy – to say that the organisation has anticipated the findings of a critical report and already started to take action.

This is quite a subtle way of suggesting that the report is out of date and that the organisation is tackling the problem – and it is used by many organisations.

So we should not be surprised that Lord Coe said this at the weekend: “The day after I got elected, I started a massive review. Understandably, in the light of the allegations that have been made, that review has been accelerated.”

This brings me on to the third element – this is to protect as many individuals in senior management as possible by suggesting that problems are procedural. How many times, do we hear in the aftermath of anything from a train crash to corporate malpractice, a spokesperson getting up and saying that “we are reviewing our procedures or systems.”

And of course, no organisation will ever admit that any individual is ultimately responsible for ensuring that the procedures are correct. It is a clever way to distance management from responsibility.

Of course in this case specific allegations are being made against individuals headed by Lord Coe’s predecessor Lamine Diack. So there has to be another element to the strategy. That is to dismiss anyone accused of malpractice as a sort of rogue elephant, who is abusing the rules of a system while everyone else is behaving honourably.

Lord Coe elegantly introduced these two elements of his strategy in one answer on the BBC. He said: “The systems we have in place are robust. If these allegations are proven then clearly bad people have manipulated a system. Should we and will we have better checks and balances to ensure that bad people don’t get into these positions in the future, yes.

In hindsight, should these systems have been in place, yes probably. My task now is now is to make sure they are and my responsibility is to build a sport that is accountable, responsible and responsive.”

Laudable aims. But these words also deflect responsibility from the majority of those who have been around for the last few years in the IAAF (Lord Coe has been vice president for seven years) and blame a few “bad people” while also putting the emphasis on the need to reform processes rather than the individuals who saw no evil.

We should also remember that this is only the latest element of Lord Coe’s strategy. Only three months ago he was adopting a much more robust – though equally carefully calculated – approach.

These tactics included trying to change the terms of the debate; challenging the credentials of your critics; switching discussion on to the way the information has been acquired, hinting this has been done illegally; and getting your PR team and lawyers to write something long and convoluted

Lord Coe is of course trying to save his sport but he is also trying to save himself – after all as vice president of the IAAF, he sat at Lamine Diack’s side for some seven years – and he will need to work hard to convince people that he has seen no evil and heard no evil.

The media seems to believe that IAAF is institutionally corrupt and that anyone concerned with the senior leadership of that organisation bears some responsibility.

As Martin Samuel put it in the Daily Mail: “Why Coe is compromised beyond repair.”

Lord Coe is trying to convince people that if there is any guilt, it is limited to a few individuals, most associated with it are honourable and capable of reforming the organisation.

And that whatever his failings, he has the capacity to lead the organisation in a difficult period – that though will be harder, following his initial oppostion to a ban on Russia and the rather hamfisted way he had to change tack.

And make no mistake: he will use every PR trick in the book as he tries to win the battle. It is far less clear whether that will be enough.

Lies, damned lies and railway timetables

This is a classic example of how a company will dodge and evade responsibility for its own failings.

It is the story of the 7.29 am Brighton to London Victoria train service. There were a series of critical stories in the press when it failed to arrive on time for each of its 240 journeys last year. Southern Rail has responded to the criticism by adding three minutes to the journey time and removing one stop.

The statement issued by the company to justify its actions was a classic of its kind. A spokesman said: “These changes have been designed to improve performance across the Southern network, and particularly on the Brighton line, which is one of the busiest routes in the country.

“A small delay on this line can have serious knock-on effects leading to widespread delays, so re-timing some trains to leave earlier and altering some calling patterns will distribute trains on the line more evenly and allow more room to keep trains running on time.

“These new changes are designed to build on those we have already made which are working well, and we expect them to help to improve punctuality further.”

Look first at the way the spokesman makes a generalised comment rather than addresses the specific issue. It is typical of corporate evasion rule book – always start the answer with a broad policy statement rather than a specific answer.

Then note the claim that, even though the journey will be longer and there will be fewer stops, the changes are designed to improve performance.

So, meeting a later arrival time is defined as a greater punctuality. Look too at the evasive phrasing – they use “re-timing” when they mean extending the journey time and changing “calling patterns” instead of cancelling stops.

Do they really think that they fool anyone with this linguistic corruption.

But, as always, most significant is the use of the passive in the first sentence. “These changes have been designed…”

The changes must have been decided by a group of individuals and one person must have taken ultimate responsibility for. However by using the passive, the spokesman can evade and avoid having to say who decided on the changes.

Southern Rail’s response was pretty standard public relations – it says everything about it that it cannot be bothered to make anything more than an off-the-peg response to changes which will have a major impact on their customers.

The deceits of Thomas Cook (part two)

It goes without saying that the travel firm Thomas Cook has behaved despicably in its treatment of the parents of the two children killed on one of its holidays.

I won’t go over the full details of what happened – The Guardian provides a perfectly good summary for those not familiar.

My blog aims to identify the way in which those with corporate or organisational power use deception and evasion to avoid taking responsibility. Thomas Cook has used exactly the same strategy as other major corporations in similar circumstances – look back through my blog for other examples.

This approach is to

: Provide the minimum possible information

: Make as few admissions as possible

: Talk at length about current policy to deflect attention from past actions

: Answer different questions to those you are asked

: Issue information through statements rather than interviews

: Use ambiguous language, usually based on excessive use of the passive as this makes it easier to avoid personal responsibility

: Always blame procedures and processes to ensure that individuals can never be held responsible.

: If you are forced to apologise always apologise for the distress caused and never for anything that an individual or the company has done.

Thomas Cook has over the nine years since the tragedy followed this approach to the letter.

In my blog last week, published just after the inquest verdict that Thomas Cook had “breached its duty of care” to the family, I asked whether Thomas Cook’s response was “just slipshod language; or is this statement part of a calculated strategy designed to protect executives and shift the blame to inanimate things like processes.”

The company’s behaviour since then has made it pretty clear that they were operating a calculated strategy, which seems to have been lawyer driven.

Let me give you a couple of recent examples – you can find plenty from my earlier blog and just looking at the company’s statements in the last week.

When previously asked about the compensation it received, a Thomas Cook spokesman said: “After it was clear that the hotel was responsible for the tragedy all parties affected were compensated and Thomas Cook received a compensation that partly compensated for the costs related to the incident.”

Look at the way the passive is used and the way a subordinate clause is used at the start of the sentence; it just doesn’t sound like the phrasing of an honest person – if I heard that said in court, I would not believe the integrity of the witness.

Then look at the statement of group chief executive Peter Fankhauser after the announcement that the company would give some of the compensation it received from the hotel chain to Unicef. His firm received the £1.5m, mainly in respect of legal fees, as part of a £3m settlement with Louis Group, the South African family-owned multinational that controls the Louis Corcyra hotel. The other £1.5m went to Thomas Cook’s insurers.

“Thomas Cook has not in any way profited from our claim against the hotel owner. In late 2012 we brought a claim against the hotelier for breaching their contract to provide safe accommodation to our customers and to comply with all applicable laws, which was decided in our favour.

“Today I have made arrangements for the full amount – £1.5m – to be donated in full to Unicef, the world’s leading children’s organisation. I believe this is the right thing to do and I apologise to the family for all they have gone through.”

It is a classic case of not answering the question he is being asked. No-one suggested that Thomas Cook profited from its claim. The allegations are that it should have announced the money it received and donated it to a charity of the parents’ choice.

Moreover the thought that lawyers’ fees came before everything else is hardly likely to endear the company or its lawyers to the public.

And finally, there is the question of an apology. I have not seen the wording of the letter sent to the family but its view is that “it’s not an apology for their wrongdoing but a general offer of sympathy.”

This is only the latest in the long ignoble tradition of non-apology apologies that are used by any organisation that wants to appear sympathetic without appearing responsible for anything.

Perhaps the only consolation for us is that Thomas Cook’s performance has done immeasurable damage to its reputation and financial position.

It has in one episode highlighted the depths that companies will go to evade and avoid responsibility for their actions.

I fear its failed strategy won’t stop other companies, bureaucracies or managers from behaving in this way.

But we are all at least better informed about the way those in power seek to deceive us and avoid responsibility.

The evasions of Thomas Cook

So have Thomas Cook been indulging in corporate evasion to protect senior executives?

Many of you will have read the deeply distressing story in which two young children were killed by carbon monoxide gas which leaked into their hotel bedroom in Greece. The parents have fought to bring the travel agents Thomas Cook to account for the deaths and this week the inquest jury found that the company had breached its duty of care.

And you will have noticed the failure of their group chief executive Peter Fankhauser to apologise on behalf of the firm or answer direct questions.

As always I am interested in the wording used by the company when it issues a statement after a verdict.

A spokesperson said: “The systems which were in place in 2006, which were intended to prevent such a tragedy, have since been thoroughly revised and address the criticisms made by the jury. Thomas Cook works with dedicated specialist external health and safety experts to audit holiday properties. The health and safety of our customers is of paramount importance.”

Those of you who have followed my blog will see that this statement follows the usual corporate defensive approach.

There is the usual vacuous general statement of principle (last sentence) that focuses on current policy. There is the usual insistence that the criticisms made of the company’s approach had already been addressed (you see this sort of statement after almost every report criticising a company).

There is the focus on procedures – though Thomas Cook define them as systems – a typical corporate response usually designed to distance executives from responsibility for their actions.

And this distancing from individual executive responsibility is made so much easier by using the passive.

Thomas Cook’s statement refers to “the systems which were in place in 2006” but does not tell us which individual was responsible for these systems at the time.

So is this just slipshod language; or is this statement part of a calculated strategy designed to protect executives and shift the blame to inanimate things like processes.

I leave it to you to decide.

The misuse of cannot

Have you noticed the growing tendency of organisations to use the word “cannot” when they should be using the words “may not.”

This may seem a trivial whinge on my part. But organisations like to use “cannot” because it implies that they would like to help but are simply not able to do so. “May not” in contrast means they are not allowed to do something so implies a decision by an individual which of course can be challenged or reversed.

Just to be clear on definitions: “Cannot” means physically or mentally unable to do something – ie I cannot jump over that wall because it is 10 feet high. “May not” implies an element of decision making or judgement – ie I may not jump over that wall because someone has put up a sign saying “Do not jump over this wall.”

Consequently companies like to say “cannot” as they see this as a way of closing discussion on a subject,

I was reminded of this trend read last week when I read the very sad story of the dog that was put down by a vet within two hours of disappearing from garden.of its owners Phil Spencer and Kate Slater. Not surprisingly this cause a lot of anger and press headlines.

According to the Daily Mail, the vets  Blythman and Partners Vetinary Practice in Gosforth responded to inquiries by satating: “We cannot comment to a third party on this matter.”

Assuming the Mail’s reporting is correct, the phrasing is intended to carry an element of finality and close the discussion about whether the vets can say anything. But it is clearly a bogus use of the word. The vets are presumably mentally and physically capable of answering questions.

The correct usage should have been that the vets may “may not” answer questions on the subject. But that statement raises further questions. Who has taken the decision that they are not allowed to talk and why have they taken that decision? Does the law prevent a vet from talking to a third party about a case even when the owners of the animal are happy to talk? Or is it company policy made up on the hoof to justify saying nothing?

I feel sorry for picking on these vets because there are many bigger companies that are worse offenders – this misuse happens almost every time I ring customer services with a complaint.

But I think we should always challenge all those in power when they try to evade and avoid by using “cannot” instead of “may not.”

Addendum: I am grateful to Robin Bailey – @RobinMaxdew – for pointing out that that “cannot” is also used extensively when the real intention is “will not.” He is absolutely right – and we should not tolerate companies that behave in this way.