CAMPAIGNS: Bell Pottinger aids Railtrack shareholders - Financial PR

On Sunday 7 October 2001, transport secretary Stephen Byers pulled the plug on Railtrack, placing the company into administration. With its shares now worthless and Byers seemingly determined that no tax-payers' money would be used to compensate shareholders, angry institutions joined forces to form the Railtrack Shareholders' Action Group (RSAG).

Objectives

To get the Government to pay what it considered fair and appropriate value to all shareholders.

While no figure was placed on this demand, the shares were valued at 280p each before they were suspended.

Strategy and Plan

The RSAG wanted to stress that it did not want a hand-out from taxpayers', only the value for the assets it owned. It also wanted to highlight that it considered the DTLR's action against accepted business practice, and that it was serious in its intention to pursue legal action. The RSAG would also claim that this action would impact on future privately-funded projects.

Realising that institutional investors do not elicit much sympathy, the RSAG highlighted the plight of smaller investors. A website was set up inviting private and small investors to join. By the end of the campaign more than 30 institutions and 70,000 small investors had registered.

A regular flow of information detailing developments was kept up, a meeting with Byers was arranged and angry comments from major US investors released.

Bell Pottinger also co-ordinated a letter to The Treasury signed by 22 institutional investors. A leaked copy became front-page news in The Times.

Measurement and Evaluation

The only measurement and evaluation that mattered was a pay out, and on 25 March an offer was made to buy the assets of Railtrack. The bail-out package, which did include £300m of taxpayers' money, will give shareholders around 250p per share.

Results

Stories appeared in newspapers from The Sun to The Financial Times with key events also taken up by broadcast media. The FT described the campaign as 'the most important story in the City for years.'

The campaign was successful in two ways: it secured compensation and blurred the fact that the RSAG was formed at the behest of institutional investors.

However, it does need to be seen in context. The winding-up of Railtrack was extremely popular for those who want the railways re-nationalised, but yet another delay in the eyes of some beleagured passengers. It was also carried out by a particularly unpopular minister.

Much of the press coverage was concerned with proof of another Byers cock-up, rather than the pros and cons of replacing Railtrack - a company with a reputation for ineptitude. A more popular minister may have stood a better chance of linking his or her decision to the company's failings.

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