When Amtrak launched its high-speed Acela regional service earlier this year, this was probably not the headline it wanted in The New York Times: ’With Fanfare and a Delay, Amtrak Unveils A Faster Train.’
When Amtrak launched its high-speed Acela regional service earlier
this year, this was probably not the headline it wanted in The New York
Times: ’With Fanfare and a Delay, Amtrak Unveils A Faster Train.’
This minor perceptual derailment aside, Amtrak’s corporate
communications department is intent on showing a shift onto the fast
The try-harder style results from Amtrak’s status as a
quasi-governmental corporation that depends on Congress for its
appropriations. ’There really isn’t a paradigm how Amtrak should
operate,’ says John Wolf, director of media relations. ’We’re an entity
unto itself.’ But in 1997, Congress mandated that Amtrak achieve
financial self-sufficiency when it came to regular operating revenue by
the end of the 2002 fiscal year. That has served to give its business
plan, not to mention its PR, added gravitas.
Amtrak is no stranger to hard times, having suffered its own financial
difficulties, route cutbacks, and an intensely partisan atmosphere when
Congressional hegemony shifted to the Republican party after the 1994
election. The situation improved in 1996, but it took another year and a
new Congress to pass funding reauthorization. That year, Amtrak also
received a much-welcomed dollars 2.3 billion in tax rebates to be used
for capital investment.
Congress’ provision requiring Amtrak to be fully independent by 2002 has
helped shape its corporate mission and communications strategy.
Recently, the railroad unveiled its new market-driven strategy to expand
routes in an effort to add dollars 65 million in annual revenue, which
is important given its deadline to achieve self-sufficiency.
A new direction
But Amtrak’s new direction involves more than just expanding rail
Other initiatives include ensuring ’consistent’ quality and revitalizing
the Amtrak brand - which involves transforming the company’s sullied
image from that of ’day-to-day struggle’ to ’opportunity and potential.’
And to make things more interesting, Amtrak has placed a relatively new
communications team in the conductor’s booth.
A few years ago, Amtrak president Thomas Downs resigned when he found
himself at odds with the railroad’s board. Under Downs, says Wall Street
Journal transportation reporter Daniel Machalaba, Amtrak’s corporate
communications hovered between awful and atrocious. ’They would try to
stop your access. They would try to throw you off the right path,’
Machalaba tells PRWeek. Not wise for a company whose main purpose was to
help you get where you’re going.
George Warrington, head of Amtrak’s northeast corridor, filled in when
Downs left and removed his interim status a year later. Now, Machalaba
contends Amtrak’s corporate communications is ’getting better. They know
me a little more, maybe they know I won’t put up with it.’ Conversations
are still filled with marketing buzzwords, but also exhibit a greater
tendency toward openness, he says.
A new senior PR team also came on board one year ago, including EVP
Barbara Richardson, a former public affairs and communications expert
for the Federal Railroad Administration and Amtrak’s northeast corridor.
Her purview now covers marketing, sales and communications. She helped
develop the business plan and now oversees brand management.
In addition, ex-Department of Transportation public affairs director
Bill Schulz joined this winter as VP of corporate communications. Schulz
oversees internal communications, media relations, speechwriting and
Dave Narsavage, a former political press secretary who now handles
employee communications, realizes the importance of communications in
meeting the railroad’s strategic goals. Picking up an employee
newspaper, he points to a section where those goals are highlighted.
When articles that reflect a specific goal run, a logo signifying that
goal accompanies it just to make sure no one misses the point.
Wolf, who started off handling government affairs for Amtrak, has a
background in TV news and formerly served as press secretary to a US
He says Amtrak’s PR ensures that the Amtrak brand is communicated
That is a welcome switch from the decentralized approach of Downs, who
established business units in the west (Oakland), midwest and south
(Chicago) and the east (Philadelphia). The business units now seek local
opportunities that reflect the national communications strategy, and
Wolf contends that communications are more focused and coordinated
But many out-of-town reporters covering transportation find themselves
out in the cold, since the timing of news releases is often influenced
by political considerations. Yet, Henry J. Holcomb, who covers business
for The Philadelphia Inquirer, credits Amtrak’s PR staff with working to
ensure that he has access by conference call when important
announcements are made. For example, the Acela introduction was handled
out of the Philadelphia office given that it runs in the northeast
corridor. Philadelphia does the legwork in dealing with the regional
news media but coordinates with Washington when it comes to corporate
Corporate communications, Wolf insists, sets the agenda when it comes to
providing media support and crafting media messages. And closer links
between the marketing department and corporate communications are being
forged now that the marketing office has centralized in Washington. The
Amtrak corporate comms team has also taken a greater role in handling
In short, the business plan drives the Amtrak message and vice
’Our message,’ says Wolf, ’is much more focused. Amtrak is much more
self-reliant. We can use accomplishments to show our business plan is
moving forward and successful.’ The company regularly heralds its
success stories in news releases, citing increases in ridership and
Bringing others on board
Amtrak’s recently announced route expansion entailed extensive PR,
including coverage in major metropolitan dailies. But the railroad has
also been busy forging partnerships with corporations such as Capital
One to provide co-branded affinity cards and with Hertz to provide
rental cars at key railroad stations. That represents another avenue for
PR, as do news conferences promoting Acela at the National Business
Travel Association and the American Society of Travel Agents. Amtrak
also intends to be active at the upcoming AARP convention in Orlando
Joseph Vranich, a member of the congressionally established Amtrak
Reform Council who served as Amtrak’s spokesperson in the mid- to-late
1970s, backed a report issued by the council earlier this year that
raised questions about Amtrak’s financial condition, showing the
railroad will not reach self-sufficiency by the deadline.
Wolf crafted a response arguing that ridership had increased by 10% over
the last three years and it had met the business plan’s financial
targets for the last two years. Moody’s, he pointed out, was pleased
with Amtrak’s progress toward achieving self-sufficiency within the set
Machalaba, for one, thinks Amtrak’s PR may be on the right course.
Can’t-do negativism has been replaced by can-do optimism, and Amtrak
sees light at the end of the tunnel. But if history is any indicator,
there will certainly be some delays along the way.
PR chief: EVP Barbara Richardson
PR staff: nine Corporate PR officers: Bill Schulz, VP of corporate
communications; John Wolf, director of media relations; Dave Narsavage,
director of employee communications; Cliff Black, director of special
External agency: Chlopak, Leonard Schechter & Associates.