ANALYSIS: Client Profile - Amtrak PR team's been working all thelivelong day

American rail travel has long been the final transport option.

Suddenly, it's de rigueur. Anita Chabria looks at how Amtrak is grabbing

the spotlight since the September 11 terrorist attacks in New York and

Washington, DC

Fear of flying has left the airlines with empty seats. But the events of

September 11 renewed interest in the nation's publicly funded rail

system. As well as dealing with the events of that day, Amtrak's PR

department has been struggling to keep up with media calls.

When the planes struck, Karina Van Veene, manager of communications at

Amtrak's corporate office in Washington, DC, was working on an

early-morning promotion at Penn Station to celebrate the start of the

New York Rangers' training camp.

The communications team immediately boarded the next outbound train, and

headed to the company's national operations center in Wilmington, DE.

They were on one of the last trains out of New York before the schedule

was suspended. "Once service continued (later that day), we immediately

saw an increase in passengers because we were the only way in and out of

New York," says Van Veene.

Out of the danger zone, Amtrak's PR pros faced a trial of another kind,

as a torrent of media calls flooded the office. Transport became a huge

story, with reporters asking how much train travel had increased (17%

the first week). There were also the inevitable questions about


Regional PR operation

The regional PR office closest to the incident normally handles Amtrak's

crisis communications. This time, the 16-person corporate office got


It normally concentrates on supporting marketing and communications

efforts, but will also handle major accidents such as a train wreck.

Amtrak's non-corporate PR is organized into three "business units"

nationwide, serving the West Coast, the "inner-city" routes in the

middle of the country, and the Northeast corridor, says West Coast

director of media relations Vernae Graham.

But job titles and responsibilities at all three points differ hugely,

and it's hard for an outsider to figure out a discernible hierarchy.

Amtrak also keeps a PR person on 24-7 call for one-week rotations to be

the point person if there's an emergency.

The magnitude of the events on September 11 prompted a more coordinated

effort, with all offices forwarding calls to special lines at a "war

room" that was quickly established at the operations center in Delaware.

Amtrak's communications staff began rotating three-person teams to

handle the influx of calls for 20 hours a day.

The company's PR executives briefed the media about all kinds of issues

related to the disaster, such as security and safety. A train derailment

in Utah a few days later only added to the chaos. The special office

closed on September 17, though Van Veene says the media calls have not


Indeed, Amtrak is attempting to keep itself in the news as much as


Amtrak was featured on NBC's Today show in a story about "aide trains"

that brought supplies to relief workers. The PR team has tried to stay

proactive, gaining three major editorials as a result of media


However, The Philadelphia Inquirer, The New York Times, and The

Washington Post all put the spotlight on Amtrak's funding issues.

Amtrak's most difficult challenge

Recent events have given the PR team its most intense challenge since

the government helped create the National Railroad Passenger Corporation

(Amtrak's official name) in 1971.

"You end up doing everything as a PR person," says former Amtrak

director of communications for the Northeast corridor, Isabel Kaldenbach

(who left four years ago to start her own firm). "You're challenged,

because in addition to running a railroad, you have to address such a

variety of audiences."

Kaldenbach adds, "Your number-one audience is your customers, but on top

of that you have a huge labor force that is mostly unionized. Then you

also have federal, state, and local politicians that want to know where

their money is going. Then finally you have the financial community -

investment bankers that are lending you money," she explains.

In the past, many of Amtrak's key PR issues have revolved around


Operating in the red for years, the company is reliant on government

subsidies, and devotes a great deal of time and effort to lobbying at

federal, state, and local levels. However, Amtrak's lobbying efforts are

conducted in-house, and not by an outside agency. One government

relations initiative involved transporting a trainload of senators to

Ground Zero to show the value of the service.

Amtrak has been in a constant battle to convince Congress that it

deserves more cash, while at the same time convince the public it is a

viable and attractive means of travel.

Immediately following the attacks, Amtrak began lobbying Congress for

$3.2 billion over 18 months in emergency funds to beef up

security and fix tunnels and equipment, says Graham. The company also

began an internal communications initiative to train some of the

company's 25,000 employees on new security measures being


Amtrak is currently under a congressional order to begin operating

without government assistance by 2002, or be subject to restructuring or

liquidation. A variety of funding packages is currently under


Trouble ahead, trouble behind

Critics complain that Amtrak fails to service important cities such as

Columbus, OH, and is too slow in other markets because of the necessity

of carrying freight. Amtrak reaches 500 destinations in 45 states, and

averages 61,000 travelers a day, not counting commuters. Amtrak doesn't

operate in Alaska, Hawaii, Maine, South Dakota, or Wyoming, though the

organization counters that there simply isn't the funding to service


However, problems such as an aging infrastructure, the need for new

equipment, and limited routes have given the transportation giant a

tarnished reputation both on Capitol Hill and with consumers. While

Amtrak has introduced new services, such as the high-speed service Acela

in the Northeast, the project was not without its PR hiccups.

First, there were practical problems. "You had to introduce this concept

(of high-speed trains) to Americans, and you had to completely rebuild

the rails to handle the trains" says Kaldenbach. The Acela advertising

campaign featured a cool-looking guy in dark sun glasses, leaving some

wondering about both the name and the product.

In addition, Amtrak's senior management and its PR team needed to

convince policy makers, financial backers, skeptical media, and local

governments impacted by construction that the project was beneficial -

knowing that a working high-speed train was years away. Even the launch

was delayed a year, starting in December 2000.

On the consumer side, Amtrak is trying to raise its image through

branding and promotional campaigns. Working with Herndon, VA-based E.

James White Communications, Amtrak is currently promoting its Acela Club

executive seating at the MCI Center in Washington, DC, as well as

working with Madison Square Garden.

The events of September 11 have created the greatest of PR challenges

for Amtrak. "We've not had a chance to sit down and debrief," says Van

Veene. She adds that "things are only just starting to calm down."


VP of corporate communications: William Schultz

Manager of corporate communications: Karina Van Veene

Acting general manager, Northeast corridor: Lynn Bowersox

VP of communications, inner-city: Cheryle Jackson Senior director of

government and public affairs, West Coast: Elizabeth O'Donoghue

Director of public affairs and media relations, West Coast: Vernae


PR Budget: undisclosed

Agencies: consults with E. James White (ad agency with public relations

department), and Chisholm Mingo (multicultural marketing)

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