Insights Michael Baker


This week: Under the covers at Premier Inn London Bridge – Thomas Cook makes a connection – Becoming a gay icon at 91

Replaying corporate responses and injecting a more human approach


Couples planning a Valentine’s Day getaway at a Premier Inn may have thought twice about it this week after Channel 4’s Dispatches programme went under the covers at one of the company’s hotels to reveal cleaning staff under pressure and breaking hygiene rules to save time.

Contract cleaners at the London Bridge Premier Inn weren’t paid for the time taken to clean all their allotted rooms and supervisors were filmed instructing their team to use guest towels to clean toilets to keep pace with gruelling schedules.  The programme calculated that their undercover cleaner ended up being paid less than £5 an hour, which as the reporter pointed out, stood in stark contrast to the CEO of Whitbread, Premier Inn’s parent company, who cleaned up with more than £2.5m last year.

What was the company’s response?  Premier Inn provided a lengthy statement – which Dispatches read out almost in its entirety – saying they rarely used sub-contractors, ISS in this case, and were “concerned to hear allegations of poor working practices”.  The company went on to say that an investigation was underway, their teams are their “number one priority” and they have “strict cleaning procedures and training”.  To credit Premier Inn, their statement is on their website, while ISS seems to have sent lines to the broadcaster but not published them online.

Impact? In the context of the reporting, showing the undercover contractor in a Premier Inn uniform, and serving managers from elsewhere in the chain speaking out, the move to land the blame squarely with the subcontractor didn’t wash.  The only person who put their name to a statement, albeit via his agent, was their brand ambassador, Sir Lenny Henry who said that he’d always found Premier Inn to be respectful to him and all the employees he’d encountered in the company.  The sense of remoteness didn’t help Premier Inn demonstrate control over their hotels or the issue.

What could have been different?  Handling undercover reporting exposés is extremely challenging with lawyers, HR and corporate affairs team all jostling for primacy in leading a company’s response.  When letters from a broadcaster land ahead of a programme like this, organisations can be fairly sure that what they read on paper is what they’ll see at transmission.  But business leaders can obsess about the detail of what the footage might show, its impact on HR investigations and potential legal risks rather than looking at the wider potential impacts of damaged trust and confidence in the brand.  It’s a tough sell internally but valuable time can be saved if organisations can get to the macro picture quickly.  It means that when it comes to transmission, they can point to action taken and plans underway; in this case, perhaps opening talks with subcontractors to secure better conditions for employees.

If workers at such a large, dominant player are under pressure from sharp practices it’s likely that the conditions for others at smaller, even lower cost operators are worse still.  The sad irony, as Premier Inn pointed out, is that they are number eight in The Sunday Times list of best big companies to work at. A point which didn’t have impact because of everything viewers had seen.  More visible leadership, a film on owned channels, social media posts from other employees or a commitment to engage and address the issue might have been more personal, engaging and had more impact.  The “best company” ranking also puts the company in premier position to take a leadership role involving unions and others to tackle the issue of fair pay and conditions in the sector.   A campaign to get the hospitality and leisure sector to clean up its act in this area might also deliver competitive advantage by putting pressure on those firms unable or unwilling to meet new standards…

Who made a human connection this week?

Thomas Cook began flying British holidaymakers to Tunisia again this week, almost three years after a terror attack put the destination off-limits to UK tourists.

There was no sneaking the announcement out under the radar though and the company’s chief executive was interviewed on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme (1:34:00 mins in) following one of the survivors who recounted what happened on the day when 38 tourists were killed.  CEO Peter Fankhauser skilfully engaged with the witness testimony, recognising their bravery and said that while no destination could ever be declared “100% safe” the company has done everything possible.  His almost casual admission that tourists from other countries including Germany, Belgium and France never stopped going to Tunisia strengthened confidence.  This was an interview he could have ducked and full credit to him and his team for stepping up and demonstrating grip, care and clear motivation to do the right thing by their customers.  They’ve also put Tunisia front of mind for UK holidaymakers no doubt looking to book their next break…

It’s never too late

Barbara Hosking, who served as press officer to Edward Heath and Harold Wilson told the BBC that she was “enjoying becoming a gay icon at the age of 91” after coming out in her memoirs, Exceeding My Brief: Memoirs of a Disobedient Civil Servant.

It’s certainly canny publicity for her new book but it also reminds us that sexual expression and freedoms were won relatively recently.  The acute discrimination and prejudice that older gay people faced when they were younger shocks and moves many of us who are privileged to have grown up in a more enlightened era.  It’s never too late to tell your story and Barbara will surely be an inspiration to others.