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Crisis Comms 101: How the British Civil Aviation Authority Guided Stakeholders Through Thomas Cook Turbulence


Thomas Cook was a British travel group company.  On September 23, 2019, Thomas Cook went into compulsory liquidation.  Around 21,000 worldwide employees were left without jobs and 600,000 customers were left abroad, triggering the United Kingdom’s largest peacetime repatriation.

Thomas Cook’s corporate collapse last month left authorities with an enormous problem. More than 150,000 holidaymakers were stranded, 9,000 UK workers lost their jobs and a million forward bookings of holidays, weddings, honeymoons and travel deals needed refunding and re-organizing.

Add to this the thousands of travel agents, hotels and tourism operators in multiple countries that had seen a major part of their business evaporate overnight, and the scale of the crisis becomes apparent.

Effective and efficient communications is critical in such a complex and large-scale operation, whether it is guidance to holiday makers, trade updates or the latest flight information.

Here, Arvind Hickman, writing for PR Week, offers a concise case study of a crisis communications plan that was swiftly conceived and executed.


The authority tasked with leading ‘Operation Matterhorn’ is the Civil Aviation Authority, which has earned praise from travel PR experts over how it has handled the complex situation.

In an exclusive interview with PRWeek, the CAA’s director of comms Richard Stephenson explains how multifaceted and complicated the comms operation has been, how they’ve managed it and what they have learnt along the way.

PRWeek: Explain the major crisis comms challenges that the CAA team faced when Thomas Cook had collapsed?

Stephenson: When you’re confronted with the challenge of repatriating more than 150,000 people from across the world, from Cuba and Mexico through to Tunisia and Turkey, within the space of two weeks, the communications crisis machine needs to kick into action quickly.

We had a multi-phase approach, starting with the immediate challenge of getting the message right and shared through as many channels as we could find, as quickly as possible. Our message then moved toward consumer confidence and in the closing stages of the repatriation operation, we shifted our focus towards informing consumers and advising those people that were not able to take their holidays.

We had a massive media, digital, industry and influencer approach to implement quickly. Our press release was issued minutes after Thomas Cook ceased trading; the first live broadcast coverage began after three minutes; while our bespoke website and social media targeting to inform potential Thomas Cook customers abroad began within the hour.

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