"Our 'share price' is our reputation" and other comms lessons from my time at Network Rail

When I arrived at Network Rail in spring 2014 we were trialling a paper press cuttings service and our cuttings book for the first week (UK only) was over an inch thick - more than my previous company, Unilever, would see globally.

Be really ambitious about the value comms can add to your organisation, says Barney Wyld
Be really ambitious about the value comms can add to your organisation, says Barney Wyld
We promptly scrapped the service before any more trees had to be cut down for paper, and I had to rapidly readjust my expectations of my new role.

Three-and-a-half years later, several virtual forests, more than 3,000 press releases, ten select committee showings and much more, I am leaving for another well-known business-to-business brand, Rolls-Royce (the engines people – they sold the car brand some years ago)

I'm looking forward to a return to corporate life, to running an international team and to helping this great British company transform itself in order to remain a world manufacturing leader in the post-Brexit world. 
But I will miss working for the railways, for an arms-length body of government. 

I will miss the brilliant team we built up over the years, and I will take some valuable lessons for comms with me.

The first is to be really clear what communications is for in your company, and the need to be really ambitious as to the value it can add. 

We stopped being a mere messaging post-box some years ago – but have not always been clear enough with ourselves, or our masters, how far we can go.  

At Network Rail we were clear – not being a listed company, our 'share price' is actually our reputation.
To maintain passenger, taxpayer and ultimately government consent for our licence to operate, our funding, and to keep others off our back we needed to maintain and enhance reputation.

Of course, actions speak louder than words – and this was never truer than on the railways.
Around 4.5 million people rightly expect a smooth, punctual service every day.  

And as we discovered, you can provide that almost all the time but still be tripped up on the one bad day when trains are delayed or even cancelled. 

Customers and stakeholders will forgive a certain amount of performance failure if they believe your heart is in the right place, if you have the right corporate 'character'.

Barney Wyld, former group director, corporate comms at Network Rail

None of us easily forgives having our day ruined because of missed meetings, appointments or our kids' bedtimes due to others' failings.

But in analysing our reputation we realised it is more complex than that. Customers and stakeholders will forgive a certain amount of performance failure if they believe your heart is in the right place, if you have the right corporate 'character'. 

And too often Network Rail was failing to show that it cared.  

Almost always in the little things: not adequately warning people when services were going to be disrupted through planned works; not giving our millions of line-side neighbours enough warning, information and support when we were going to be keeping them awake with our works, sometimes for days or even weeks at a time.  

Not consulting adequately with local communities when we were going to be seriously disrupting their lives by closing bridges or level crossings for months on end.

In all these areas the comms team took the lead in educating the business and ensuring sufficient focus was put into fundamentally changing our customers' experience. As you might expect. 

But we went further than that. 

We persuaded our leaders to make a reduction in complaints, one of the key scorecard measures by which we drove the business, and which determined the bonus of all 39,000 employees.

We also realised that many of the complaints from the public but also MPs and others were related to how the company comports itself – the behaviour of our track workers and subcontractors, carelessness in how and when we would carry out our work, not showing enough sensitivity when cutting back vegetation around the railway.  

So the comms team devised and now delivers worker behaviour training in depots all around the country, showing a mirror up to our 'orange army' to get them to think about some of the effects they are having on people while they are trying to 'get the job done'.  

And this is now showing serious results, with overall complaints dropping by a third in some areas in only a year.

For me the lesson is clear – comms professionals bring a perspective about what the outside world wants from the organisation that often no-one else can.  

I often say that the most important sense in a communications person's armour is listening – not transmitting.  

Where we listen and understand, and then take action, we can influence far more than just what is transmitted through comms channels.

Barney Wyld was group director, corporate comms at Network Rail until last month, and is now corporate affairs director at Rolls-Royce

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