CAMPAIGNS: Railtrack in a hurry to quell frenzy - Crisis Management

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.

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

his resignation.

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

too high.

More significantly, for the moment at least, it has lost the political

argument over the wisdom of privatisation.

Client: Railtrack

PR team: In-house with support from The Rowland Company and Brunswick

Campaign: Paddington rail disaster

Timescale: Tuesday 5 October

Budget: Undisclosed

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