PR FAIL: Customer asked to prove Wife's dead – when protocol trumps compassion

By Isabelle Walker

How is it an era where Twitter is king company protocols (like no refunds) can still trump human emotion and graciousness? Camper Travel learned this the hard way today, scrambling into damage control after asking a customer to prove the death of his wife, and then refusing the refund anyway. This starkly contrasted with Virgin Australia’s approach to the situation, which can only be hailed as best practice.

If there is one thing that can truly inspire faith in the human race, it is compassion, grace and understanding in the wake of a horrible tragedy. Conversely, the opposite can prompt one to all but lose faith in humanity.

There were two examples of this over the weekend when Mr Rob Armstrong, widower to shark attack victim Christine Armstrong, had to cancel their upcoming trip camping trip from Darwin to Adelaide in July.

In a public relations nightmare for any company, an inadequately trained staff member informed Mr Armstrong that proof of his wife’s death would be necessary to proceed with the cancellation. The employee even suggested Mr Armstrong send through a news article to confirm his wife had indeed been the victim of a shark attack. To add insult to serious injury, after it was confirmed that Mr Armstrong was telling the truth, the company informed him he would not be refunded anyway.

It was not about the money, Mr Armstrong said, but that he was “cancelling all our bookings as a matter of courtesy”. It was only after he had received the unfathomable correspondence from Camper Travel, compared with the compassionate response of another travel company that he realised just how “completely immoral and unconscionable” Camper Travel’s reaction had been.

The ‘other’ travel company was Virgin Airlines, who, after receiving Mr Armstrong’s cancellation requests, “immediately” replied with a compassionate email offering the full refund of their cancelled tickets. Obviously, this is the expected response, not just of a well-managed brand but also as an act of human kindness.

Although when coming from a PR perspective on these types of ill-managed matters, you tend to ask how any firm could be so unprepared for a situation which warrants so obvious a response. Nonetheless, it was a PR disaster that Camper Travel’s Managing Director scrambled to ameliorate today, finally reimbursing Mr Armstrong and admitting his company policy fell short of what should be expected.

Let’s hope they learn from their mistakes.