News Analysis: Communication is in real danger of a breakdown - Railtrack's handling of the latest train accident does nothing to address the question of how much top communicators are listened to at major corporations

Railtrack corporate affairs director Sue Clarke was not listed as a participant in the crucial meeting the night after the crash when the Railtrack board refused to accept the resignation of chief executive Gerald Corbett.

Railtrack corporate affairs director Sue Clarke was not listed as a participant in the crucial meeting the night after the crash when the Railtrack board refused to accept the resignation of chief executive Gerald Corbett.

Despite talk of how Railtrack had improved its ability to communicate since the crash at Paddington a year ago, this fact alone suggests that the top PR professional in a company with more sensitive publics than most is involved only in how the big decisions are communicated. Given the opprobrium to which rail companies are subjected after crashes, it would make sense to have that person involved in how the decisions are made as well.

According to Philip Dewhurst, former Railtrack corporate affairs director, there are only three things the public needs to hear in the wake of a fatal train crash: 'What happened, why it happened and whose fault it is - that's all they want to know.'

The company, which has been responsible for maintaining the UK's 20,000 miles of track since its privatisation in 1996, admitted its culpabililty swiftly after last week's derailment near Hatfield in which four people were killed. Worn track - which Railtrack rents to operating companies - was to blame.

A former Corbett colleague says: 'Gerald's offer to resign wasn't done as a PR stunt. He felt it was something he had to do as a matter of principle because he's the man at the top.' But in communications terms it was shmaltz; the embodiment of an interpretation of PR as cure over prevention.

Indeed, newspapers are already suggesting it was a stunt even though Corbett has probably been the group's best PR asset since the Paddington crash in which 31 people died.

Last week Corbett quickly called for a radical review of the way the rail industry operates - a transparent move which, while it may not appease his detractors, will have done him no harm.

There is no doubt the company's reputation has improved in the aftermath of Paddington. One source said: 'A year ago, Gerald was the most hated man in Britain, Railtrack the most hated company.' That may overstate the case, but support for Railtrack's decision to keep Corbett has come from a range of sources, including train companies and survivor groups.

The company has also taken the step of highlighting 81 areas of track which could be as big a risk as Hatfield, and imposed speed restrictions while they meet with operators, regulators, maintenance contractors and the Health and Safety Executive.

Fatal accidents on the railways are big news, especially given that 84 per cent of Railtrack's pounds 4.1 billion revenue last year came from passenger franchises. Mangled wreckage and body bags are never going to be a PRO's dream, but presenting information as clearly and honestly as possible is a prime objective.

'Railtrack is subject to so much scrutiny, there is no room for playing games,' one current employee says.

Railtrack's PR failings were clearer at Paddington. Since it appeared there was no failure in equipment the company was responsible for - track and signals - it left train operators to accept responsibility and visit hospitals. This was an error, admits head of communications Lynn Harvey.

'We have learned that people see Railtrack as the public face of the railways.' The company has now become more involved with victims groups, Harvey says, consulting on how they would like to mark the crash's first anniversary. Railtrack is gathering addresses of Hatfield casualties' families and intends to write to them.

Clever tactical communications cannot, however, make up for a lack of strategic input at a much earlier stage. Former Railtrack communicators frequently complain that despite Corbett's purported belief in the importance of PR, strategic decisions are not given the chance to benefit from the top PRO's advice.

After the Southall crash three years ago, the then CEO John Edmonds proved himself 'a lifetime British Rail man putting in a sullen, monosyllabic performance which indicated resentment that Railtrack should have to be up-front and open. There's been a quantum leap since then,' one source says.

'It has become speedier in terms of showing openness,' says Beverley Kaye, CEO of PR21, which has Railtrack as a client. 'It didn't want to talk to the media before and it didn't have to.'

'The role of Corbett is vital,' Dewhurst says. 'He has made himself accountable and accessible. If you think about the CEO as a brand, then Gerald lived that. He would never shirk a media opportunity and makes himself available internally and externally.'

Railtrack built up some goodwill over the last year especially, and is benefitting from that now. Simon Miller, head of public affairs for the company for four years until his recent move to Hill and Knowlton, summed it up: 'Over the last three years, Railtrack has become more effective at quickly providing information to press enquiries.'

In purely presentational terms, contrition goes down well with the public and on a nuts and bolts basis, there have been improvements. But the inability of the company to think ahead is manifest.

Strategic communication should anticipate dodgy tracks leading to crashes and insist on speedier fixes. Top marks for the efficient crisis work, but more respect for those tasked with handling the crises would make such crises less likely in the first place.

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