There can never be a good time or place for a major accident. But
from the perspective of managing perceptions, it would be hard to
imagine a worse time or place for the Paddington rail disaster.
It occurred in central London on the same stretch of track as the
Southall accident two years ago. To make matters worse, there was a
Sainsbury’s car park next to the crash site which provided an unusually
convenient grandstand for cameras to record the images of body bags
being carried from the mangled wreckage.
As if that wasn’t bad enough, the accident occurred just as the enquiry
into the Southall accident was reaching its peak, raising serious
questions about Railtrack’s safety procedures. The crisis also
highlighted unresolved political issues about the existence and role of
Railtrack, which was privatised in 1996.
The campaign changed as news and reaction to the disaster developed.
The initial aim was to communicate Railtrack’s sympathy to friends and
family of the bereaved and concern for those who were injured and to
implement the disaster contingency plan. This emphasised the provision
of accurate information to journalists and reassurance to
Within 24 hours, Railtrack had established that its track and signalling
were not at fault. Communicating this message became the prime
But by the weekend, when a press backlash had developed, the company
tried to counter negative perceptions of its safety and competence with
a vision of a more passenger-friendly future.
Strategy and Plan
The Railtrack press office learned of the accident within minutes. The
’incident room’ at Euston immediately swung into action and a ten-strong
team fielded calls while another four press officers went to the crash
scene. Railtrack chief executive Gerald Corbett was at the crash site
giving interviews and relaying facts within the hour.
After 5,000 calls in the first two days, extra help was drafted in from
The Rowland Company and Brunswick. Corbett appeared on as many major
television news programmes as possible. Railtrack staff were updated
with regular e-mails on the intranet. By the weekend, Railtrack was
briefing editors of national newspapers direct, and after the rail
regulator threatened to revoke its licence, City editors were
Measurement and Evaluation.
It is still too early for Railtrack’s full assessment of how the
campaign was handled. However, Railtrack’s share price has dropped.
Technically the campaign was exemplary. The provision of factual
information worked well and the team got over the message that
Railtrack’s equipment was not at fault.
Having its CEO appear in the media immediately and answering tough
questions added to Railtrack’s credibility, especially when the train
companies involved would not comment, although there have been calls for
However, there are limits to what even good PR practice can achieve.
The company admits it was powerless to control the perception that its
management systems were at fault; that making profits as a private
company conflicted with the need for and cost of safety procedures and
technology; that signal 109 was poorly-sited; and that speed limits are
More significantly, for the moment at least, it has lost the political
argument over the wisdom of privatisation.
PR team: In-house with support from The Rowland Company and Brunswick
Campaign: Paddington rail disaster
Timescale: Tuesday 5 October