Channel 4's Dispatches on 29 April made uncomfortable viewing for Royal Mail. Third-Class Post saw investigative reporter Simon Barnes go undercover as a postman: he was able to film evidence of Royal Mail workers hiding mail rather than sorting it, operating broken-down machinery in which some letters were mangled, demanding overtime simply to finish a shift and abandoning their rounds without completing them.
Some former workers admitted on camera that they had stolen credit cards, passports and cheque books from letters they were sorting.
Evidence was also gathered that Nigerian gangs had infiltrated sorting offices as employees with the intention of stealing valuable documents sent in the post. The programme, needless to say, was a major embarrassment for Royal Mail.
The day after the broadcast, Royal Mail chairman Allan Leighton sent a letter to employees outlining his concerns. It read: 'Clearly this was awful viewing and demonstrates that we do have individuals in the company who cause us all and our customers harm... this is unacceptable and we will have to deal with this. In light of the press and TV coverage, I want to thank everyone for what they are doing... while at the same time not duck the issues.'
PRWeek invited Royal Mail to discuss its communications programme in the wake of Dispatches. However, the organisation declined to contribute to this article, except to offer a background briefing. Royal Mail external relations director Paul Budd said: 'This isn't the right time for us to be talking about PR tactics. It's about the service on the doorstep.'
Budd refused to discuss communications policy but said recent media criticism had to be seen in context. He added that Dispatches offered no right to reply, although a C4 spokesperson said: 'C4 sent a letter by hand to Royal Mail two weeks before transmission was due, which was adequate notice to respond. It declined to give us an on-camera interview, but sent us a detailed response by letter, which we fairly reflected in the programme.'
The three commentators (see boxes) have composed their responses based upon media reports.
Trouble past and future
Over the last two years, crises have come thick and fast for Royal Mail, from posting losses of £611m in 2002 to a recent survey by Postwatch that found 14.4 million letters go missing every year. On 27 May, Royal Mail released information that showed that for the year ending March 2004, 90.1 per cent of first-class mail was delivered on time, against a target of 92.5 per cent.
These problems are a far cry from the affectionately regarded brand that was trusted enough to inspire children's TV classic Postman Pat.
And seismic changes lie ahead. From April 2007, the letter delivery market, of which Royal Mail has a 99.7 per cent share, will be deregulated, allowing more competition.
In preparation for this, and to stem recent losses, the company is conducting a three-year cost-cutting programme in a bid to become a leaner operation. Royal Mail may hope that these measures will spell an end to its current problems.
Mike Regester, director, Regester Larkin
'First things first. The fact that a letter can reach me in central London from Edinburgh in two days, let alone one, is pure magic. That it costs a mere 27p is nothing short of a miracle.
'Yet Royal Mail is under siege, mainly, it appears, from the media rather than customers. A straw poll of friends and colleagues revealed no bad experiences of late postal deliveries. Yet, of course, it is serious if someone misses a hospital appointment through late delivery.
'Royal Mail is under the same media spotlight as companies that have lurched from the public to the private sector. Remember British Gas?
'That Royal Mail has shortcomings is certain, but it must stop allowing the media and consumer groups from setting the agenda. In many ways, it is the victim of its own success. Customers have high expectations in the same way as they expect water to come out of a tap.
'While it needs to acknowledge its shortcomings and communicate plans for eradicating them, Royal Mail must also spend far more energy in communicating the benefits of its service to the public - and in better communicating its vision to staff.
'The postman, like the bobby on the beat, was once a much-loved icon of the British way of life. More training for postmen in customer relations should also be considered.
'Royal Mail should also re-educate us. How many deliveries get lost because of illegible writing, wrong or missing post codes? A "Help us to help you" campaign could do much to help Royal Mail achieve its target of 92.5 per cent of first-class mail arriving on time.
'After deregulation in 2007, alternative delivery companies will concentrate only on high-conurbation areas. We will continue to need a successful, efficient, profitable and committed Royal Mail.'
Martin Langford, director, Kissmann Langford
'Royal Mail's strategy would benefit by defining the problem at the outset.
It appears it has had lots of stop-gap initiatives but lacks a clear definition of the problems and how it envisages the future. I haven't seen a vision for the organisation beyond the series of sagas that have unfolded in the media.
'If you analyse this series of crises, Royal Mail bashing appears to be fashionable at present among its stakeholders, the media, its regulator - and even itself. It seems fundamental, but it needs to set about improving these relationships immediately.
'And I suspect Royal Mail has a workforce like any other organisation: there are a few bad eggs, but 95 per cent of staff will be highly motivated and want to do more to help.
'Royal Mail must also ask itself: are we doing enough to motivate employees?
Getting the internal climate right is so significant. It isn't quite true that if you get the internal stuff right, the external perception will work itself out, but that isn't far off the mark. It's also worth bearing in mind that although media coverage, such as the Dispatches programme, is transitory, the way employees feel about these stories will not go away.
'In order to survive these crises, Royal Mail has to have a senior team looking seriously at its problems.
'Secondly, research is a powerful tool in situations like this. I don't know how much research Royal Mail does, but I suspect it would find that there is a huge amount of latent goodwill towards it that is not being harnessed.
'For example, there is an incredible emotional pull connected with waiting for the post and receiving a letter from a loved one that is far more powerful than email.'
Mike Seymour, international director of crisis and issues management, Edelman
'The Royal Mail situation is not one that can be cured by a PR "silver bullet". My first advice would be to accept that this situation requires an objective viewpoint - an outside perspective - from which to take stock.
'It must write down all the issues, problems, perceptions and misperceptions that are affecting Royal Mail's reputation. It must then sit back and do what I call an "issue landscaping" exercise to find out who the people who have a concern with the Royal Mail are and what their opinions of the organisation are.
'This requires working from the inside out and from the bottom up: what do the postmen and women, the counter staff and so on feel about Royal Mail? How do the shift managers feel? Then union views should be considered, moving up to middle and senior management, before the question of customer satisfaction is asked.
'The next question should be: what is the competition doing and saying about us - the regulators, the DTI?
'Under these circumstances, one must look objectively at what each of these groups are and what they are thinking about the organisation in question. Their responses should be tracked on a plus and minus scale to the question: do you trust Royal Mail as an organisation?
'It will find that there are interesting people in interesting places who either support it or are against it. Then Royal Mail can ask what it can do about it and communicate strongly, based upon what comes out of that process.
'Handling this and most other crises requires thinking in two time frames - what one wants people to think now and what one wants them to think in the future. This stops one nibbling at the problem instead of looking long term.
'Finally, Royal Mail must make sure the management is speaking with one voice.'