ANALYSIS: Client Profile - Amtrak rebrands rail, touts new plan with PR. Financial problems, delays and route cutbacks have haunted Amtrak during much of its recent existence. But the beleaguered railroad is eyeing a comeback, and PR is the engine driving

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.’

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

track.



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

service.



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

design.



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

House member.



He says Amtrak’s PR ensures that the Amtrak brand is communicated

nationally.



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

now.



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

messaging.



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

promotional initiatives.



In short, the business plan drives the Amtrak message and vice

versa.



’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

revenue.





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

this May.



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

deadline.



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.





AMTRAK



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

projects



External agency: Chlopak, Leonard Schechter & Associates.



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