Client: Great North Eastern Railways (GNER)
PR Team: In-house
Campaign: Hatfield train derailment disaster
Timescale: October 2000-ongoing
On 17 October last year GNER's media team received a pager message that one of the company's trains had derailed and that there were fatalities and severe injuries.
In the eerie period before it received further details the team had to prepare for a media deluge.
To handle media enquiries following the Hatfield train derailment and offer spokespeople for interview.
To communicate the disruption to rail services following the crisis (and also the severe autumn floods).
Strategy and Plan
GNER has a three-strong media team, with two people based in York and one in Edinburgh. On learning of the disaster it contacted its retained agency Countrywide Porter Novelli and prepared to put its well-rehearsed contingency plan into practice.
The initial messages were that an accident had occurred on the 12:10pm departure from King's Cross, that the emergency services were in attendance, that there were fatalities and injuries, and that people were being treated in two hospitals.
GNER chief executive Christopher Garnett flew by helicopter from York to the crash site with Railtrack north-eastern zone regional director Nick Pollard. At a press conference they expressed their shock and sadness. GNER utilised its welfare counselling service to support the bereaved. Garnett attended the two hospitals as well as a memorial service.
Before it was clarified that track failure was to blame for the crash, GNER had to deal with press speculation.
In summer 1998 the operator had to withdraw 31 trains from service due to a broken wheel.
It was fully exonerated and commended for its handling of the incident, but media speculation mounted as to whether this was a repeat cause.
As Garnett appeared on Radio 4, Railtrack released a statement that the accident was due to a line fault, nullifying speculation that GNER was to blame.
However, GNER (and other operators) still received enquiries on matters like compensation. The press office had to communicate details of longer journey times and delays as a result of speed and service restrictions. GNER was subjected to up to 100 speed restrictions and had to advise media and passengers of amended timetables.
The in-house team drew up a communications charter to clarify its strategy.
They posted daily updates online, posters at stations and advertised in the press. Letters were sent to MPs and MSPs.
The autumn floods meant timetables were subject to further changes and delays. Buses were arranged as alternatives and at one stage even that was insufficient due to the A1 being blocked. Therefore 400 customers were accommodated in a hotel for the night.
Measurement and Evaluation
Since Hatfield, GNER has received about 4,000 press enquiries, 2,000 of those in the month following the crash - when the department had to be available 24-hours-a-day, seven-days-a-week. The broadcast media has commended the GNER team for its availability.
The operator's emergency strategy gained positive feedback from the Strategic Rail Enquiry and MPs.
The GNER team was not so much involved in a sprint as a marathon. They had to work very long hours over a long period to satisfy a press willing to pile further negative editorial on any mistakes.
The train service is expected to be back to 86 per cent of its normal frequency by 15 January, but won't resume optimum performance until Easter. Once service returns to normal, GNER will launch Project Springboard, an initiative designed to win back custom.