Editorial: Rail crash PR is a no-win situation

There can be few PR professionals who have not spared a thought for Railtrack corporate affairs director Philip Dewhurst this week, and breathed a sigh of relief that they are not standing in his shoes.

There can be few PR professionals who have not spared a thought for

Railtrack corporate affairs director Philip Dewhurst this week, and

breathed a sigh of relief that they are not standing in his shoes.



The finger of blame has been pointed at Railtrack by the media, despite

the fact that whatever problems may lurk elsewhere in the network, on

this occasion, the company appears to be guilty of little more than

letting a train, operated by another company, run through its working

signal system.



This is in no way to belittle the scale of this tragedy. It is an

appalling, senseless waste of life - made all the more difficult to

stomach by the fact that it was preventable, at a price. But the sheer

fury of public emotion, fanned by the media, has led to a level of

demonisation that makes Dewhurst’s task next to impossible.



Any proactive attempts to defend Railtrack will undoubtedly be seen as

heartless by the media, and labelled as wanton PR trickery and

self-promotion?



Thames Trains’ decision to hire an agency to handle its ’crisis public

affairs’ could also well lead to criticism regarding allocation of

funds.



While in fact, the decision to hire the consultancy is motivated by a

desire to improve lines of communication between the rail industry and

Government during the inquiry. A move that is likely to benefit

commuters in the future.



In such highly charged circumstances any proactive stance or any

statement made is in danger of being seen as inappropriate, yet if the

company were to refrain from commenting, the silence could construed as

callous indifference to the suffering of its customers and the concerns

of the public at large.



To make the task even more impossible, while Dewhurst now faces the

challenge of finding a way to convey Railtrack’s sympathy in an

appropriate fashion, at the end of the day he also has a responsibility

to protect the reputation of the company and its share price. Railtrack

cannot cannot simply throw up its arms in a fit of remorse, accept all

responsibility for the tragedy, and effectively agree to cease

trading.



So is there a solution? There is no magic panacea, but one thing is

clear.



Apportioning blame will only serve to further undermine the reputation

of the entire industry. The rail wars have already badly damaged the

confidence of commuters, and the perception of any further fragmentation

will effectively scupper any Government plans to move commuters from

road to rail. It is a seemingly impossible balancing act and one which

will require an extraordinarily intelligent reading of the climate of

public emotion.



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