Railtrack PR push misses the points

Railtrack launches its first advertising campaign at the end of this month. The privatised rail maintenance company will seek to promote the refurbishment of its railway stations.

The 2m press and poster campaign (MW March 5) will attempt to reverse negative public perceptions about the company, which last week faced a barrage of criticism about its safety record and a shortfall of investment in the upkeep of the UK’s railway track.

But observers question the wisdom of Railtrack’s long-term marketing and public relations strategy and wonder if it could do more to explain its position.

For Railtrack’s director of corporate affairs, Philip Dewhurst, it is an opportunity to set the record straight on the company’s work. “The campaign is designed to be information-based to show what the company has been doing,” says Dewhurst, who is a veteran of what he calls “challenging PR briefs”. Before joining Railtrack in September 1995, eight months ahead of its privatisation, he was a PR consultant for the European Commission on its nuclear waste disposal programme. He has also worked as a PR consultant for ICI.

The campaign will focus on refurbishments at Paddington and Cardiff stations, as well as the disabled access that has been installed. “We’ve done a lot of research into what our stakeholders, such as customers, opinion leaders, our staff and the regulators want us to be and we are basing the advertising on that. We want to be seen as innovative and open, and talk about our achievements,” says Dewhurst. “What we’re also trying to do is show people that, yes, this is the age of the train,” he says.

But industry sources have doubts over the wisdom of the move.

One says: “Frankly, they’re in a mess. They have no marketing department and the whole industry is perceived as backward. Of all the privatised industries, such as BT and British Gas, rail always comes out at the bottom. The perception is that nothing is being done about investing in railways.”

Another observer says: “What the campaign should do is tell people the problems and say what it is doing to put it right.”

Railtrack has certainly had its fair share of “perception problems”. Right from the start, it was perceived as a fat-cat operation.

Results for the year announced last June showed operating profits up 15 per cent at 339m. Jonathan Bray, campaign director for Save Our Railways says “The Government has said that a 2bn subsidy will be paid to rail-operating companies, which is an indirect subsidy to Railtrack. Railtrack charges train operating companies for access to its tracks. So all consumers see is government investment being put in, which comes out as huge profits for shareholders.”

In addition to the fat-cat tag, Railtrack has had a number of public relations disasters in the past few months. In February, a leaked letter from the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) expressed the in- spectorate’s concerns about the condition of track on Railtrack’s network. In two cases, it stated that the track was in “such an extremely bad condition as to be unsafe” and that prosecutions were being considered.

Within days of the revelations hitting the national press, Railtrack announced that it was imposing a 25 per cent cut on track maintenance after announcing that it wants to save 80m. There is a backlog in the company’s asset maintenance plan – the amount of money that it has pledged to invest in the track network – of a figure approaching 277m. Add to this a possible prosecution in April being brought by the HSE and, to put it mildly, Dewhurst has a big PR problem on his hands.

Some observers have questioned the wisdom of starting a campaign when the company does not have a marketing department or a marketing director. “Marketing activity is run out of the corporate communications department and we do have marketing specialists on our team,” is Dewhurst’s response.

But is the company really going to be able to reach a broad audience with a relatively small spend and no TV advertising?

“It’s all about a drip-feed approach,” says Julian Lumley, deputy managing director of Domino, the agency behind the new campaign. “Rather like water on a stone, eventually we will see an imprint. What we’re saying is this is not the age of the train yet, but it will be.

“My view is that it would be an inordinate waste of money if it was to do an enormous advertising campaign now, for example, when people have yet to see stations sorted out,” he says.

However, the fact that the advertising project was put out to tender only three months ago, when the Channel Tunnel Rail Link was rumoured to be in trouble, suggests that the company is pursuing a reactive and tactical approach, rather than looking at the bigger picture.

“It should be telling people what the problems are, what it is doing about them, and how it aims to achieve results,” says one source.

Save Our Railways’ Bray says: “I don’t think the campaign will work. The company is really a victim of the fragmentation of the rail network. Commuters look at the journey as a whole, they don’t really know who does what and, more than anything, they find it confusing. Passengers are suspicious of privatisation, they don’t like the fat-cat stuff, so I don’t know how effective this campaign will be.”

Railtrack’s campaign is part of a trend among controversial privatised companies trying to alter negative perceptions through advertising.

Gas pipeline operator Transco has recently launched a nationwide TV campaign aimed at building awareness and demonstrating that the company is part of the fabric of British life. Railtrack’s campaign should also be compared to Virgin Trains, which has introduced a series of poster ads using the catchline “light at the end of the tunnel”, explaining that improvements are on the way, but that they will not appear overnight.

Railtrack’s campaign launches as it prepares to expand its business. Last week, deputy Prime Minister John Prescott hinted that Railtrack could win a role in running the Channel Tunnel Rail Link (MW March 5). The company is also looking at running the track for the London Underground. The timing of the campaign also coincides with the Government Transport White Paper which is due in May and will look at getting cars off the roads and at boosting other forms of transport.

Railtrack needs to build a positive image ahead of these moves. But its strategy is to keep its profile low, while doing the minimum to keep stakeholders and, particularly the regulators, informed.

Perhaps it should grasp the nettle and tell people what it is doing to put the problems right. Then consumers might be more willing to put up with discomfort over the short term.

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