How would you handle this crisis?

How would your organisation respond if a watchdog found “multiple instances of race discrimination” in the way it operated?

That was the position Pontins found itself in after the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) concluded it had committed several breaches of the Equality Act.

The holiday park operator discriminated Travellers by drawing up a list of "undesirable" Irish surnames.

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It was also found to have instructed call centre staff to listen for Irish accents and decline or cancel their bookings.

As a result, the company has been hit with something called an ‘unlawful act notice’ by the equality watchdog.

Baroness Kishwer Falkner, its chairwoman, said: “Their business practices demonstrated shocking overt race discrimination towards Irish Travellers and there was a culture of denial.

“We remain deeply concerned about these discriminatory practices. They were instigated and supported by senior managers and their leadership failed to take any action or accept corporate responsibility.

Damning stuff. And unsurprisingly, the investigation findings led to a series of hard-hitting headlines:

Pontins discriminated against Travellers by drawing up a list of 'undesirable' Irish surnames Sky News

Pontins discriminated against Irish Travellers – watchdog BBC News

Pontins served ‘unlawful act notice’ over discrimination against Irish Travellers The Guardian

Pontins told staff to listen for Irish accents then cancel bookings Metro

The firm’s ‘undesirable guests’ list, which contains 40 surnames, including Boyle, Murphy and Ward, has also been circulated widely in media coverage and social media. Research suggests more than one million people could have been impacted by the ban.

So, how has the budget holiday firm responded to this reputational crisis?

Well, as crisis responses go, this one leaves much to be desired.

The company’s owners - Britannia Jinky Jersey - issued a statement that said: “We are in the process of reviewing the unlawful act notice and investigation report from the Equality and Human Rights Commission.

“The specific incidents reported by the EHRC are historic issues predating 2018. The call centre where the incidents took place has closed and the majority of the staff involved have now left Pontins.

“We apologise to all who may have been affected. Pontins is committed to ensuring ongoing compliance with the Equality Act 2010.”

How does that make you feel? Does it sound like it is resourceful, and believes it is accountable for what happened?

For me, the statement is the wrong way around. It must begin with an apology. And the apology needs to sound meaningful, which starts with removing the phrase “who may have been affected”.

It’s one of those non-apology apology phrases. Saying “may” doesn’t suggest responsibility is being taken.

Apologies that take this approach always sound like something an organisation feels it should say, rather than something it genuinely believes.

“We are sorry” would also be more impactful than “we apologise”.

One of the actions set out by the commission is that the holiday park operator must “apologise to and engage with the Gypsy and Traveller community.”

That apology will need to be a significant improvement on the one issued in the statement. 

Action is another crucial part of crisis media management responses.

So, rather than just saying the call centre has closed, staff have left, and the incidents are historic, show what action you have taken to help ensure something like this does not happen again. For example, if diversity and equality training has been rolled out, that would be something positive to highlight.

It needs to show how it has changed.

One of the other issues with the statement is that it is anonymous. Surely, quotes from someone senior in the company would help to show it is taking the investigation findings seriously.

And, to go back to the apology, a leader saying, “I’m sorry”, is better still than an organisation saying, “We are sorry”.

During our crisis communication courses, we stress the importance of organisations being able to respond and communicate quickly when the worst happens. Information and bad news typically travel swiftly.

But this was not a fast-moving or unexpected crisis. The practices at the holiday firm were revealed by the whistleblower in 2020. And the Equality and Human Rights Commission has been investigating since.

It had a long time to plan how it would respond to potential findings from that investigation, try to show how it has changed and attempt to control the narrative.

The company has until 9 April to produce an action plan. But it could have used its crisis response to outline that and show how it has changed since 2018.

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The EHRC findings are the latest blow to Pontins brand reputation.

The company seems to be in steep decline, with just two parks remaining open from an empire of more than 30 in its heyday.

In January, it closed its third park in two months, with staff at the Southport park claiming they found out by text they had lost their jobs.  

Additionally, Britannia, the company’s owner, has been named the UK’s worst hotel chain for 11 years running by Which?.

The company has also previously appeared in our crisis communication blogs after its then boss was at the centre of an infamous Watchdog interview following customer complaints about bad smells, dirty bathrooms, holes in walls and blood-stained bedding during their stays.

There are many problems Pontins needs to overcome to reverse its decline.

But it also needs to greatly improve communication to re-establish trust and credibility.

And show it has changed.


Media First are media and communications training specialists with more than 35 years of experience.

We have a team of trainers, each with decades of experience working as journalists, presenters, communications coaches and media trainers.

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