Advice to Go-Ahead: If someone asks for a comment, for God's sake give them one

Whoever does the PR for bus and train company Go-Ahead could be forgiven for thinking that this is not their year.

One more negative story and the proverbial fan is going to need a mighty good clean, writes Richard Pendleton
One more negative story and the proverbial fan is going to need a mighty good clean, writes Richard Pendleton
Its Thameslink trains are officially the least punctual in the country, and staff who belong to transport union RMT are considering strike action.

Meanwhile, Go-Ahead’s accounts revealed that chief executive David Brown will be pocketing a cool £2.16m, with total shareholder dividends at a staggering £37m. 

Can anything be done to save its reputation?

The short answer is yes, but the situation needs some fairly serious attention, fairly quickly. 

On the one hand, commuters are packed into trains that are often severely delayed, or stood helpless on platforms when their trains are cancelled. 

On the other, those at the top are making a huge profit from a clearly failing franchise.
One more negative story and the proverbial fan is going to need a mighty good clean.

The story first ran in the London Evening Standard, but it was quickly picked up by other news outlets as well.
All of them will have noted with glee that Go-Ahead was saying 'no comment', which is the same as saying 'everything in this article is true, and we can’t think of anything to say'. 

In a situation like this, it is important to take control of the narrative early on. If someone asks for a comment, for God’s sake give them one.

Airing wider problems that people may not realise exist can be an effective way of diverting unwanted media interest in your business.

Talking about how many trains you run and how many miles of track you are responsible for is a start, but Go-Ahead could also say with some justification that many of the delays are the result of track maintenance work, over which it has no control, and of legacy problems that would take any company years to sort out, even with adequate investment. 

In short, the attention could reasonably be shifted on to the Government and pre-existing infrastructure, and away from Go-Ahead’s service.

The focus of Go-Ahead’s problems is the Govia Thameslink Railway, a 140-mile route from Bedford to Brighton through London, serving Gatwick and Luton Airports as well as 66 other stations. 

With many morning and evening trains packed beyond capacity, the line is a reliable source of headlines. 

Its punctuality and reliability statistics are at 80.7 per cent, a long way behind the 88.9 average for England and Wales, but there is an, admittedly dim, light at the end of the tunnel.

There is a £6bn investment in Thameslink, which has an estimated completion date sometime in 2018. 

Go-Ahead could claim that this investment demonstrates that the need for work on the line has been recognised by the Government. 

It could also claim that stripping it of the franchise when it’s about to be upgraded deprives it of the ability to show what it can do when isn't in charge of a sclerotic, Victorian-built railway system.

It was reported that an estimated £188m had been wiped off the beleaguered company’s market value as investors voted with their money, while the refurbishment of London Bridge, one of the principal stations along the route, promises further disruption. 

The headlines might get worse before they get better, but if it holds its nerve, Go-Ahead is likely to survive. 

The news cycle is getting shorter and attention shifts. Don’t bet against it just yet.

Richard Pendleton is a freelance consultant at Rampart PR

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