Analysis: Jarvis rethinks its PR to counter 'troubled' label

Engineering giant Jarvis has taken a battering over the past year With senior management changes now in place, is it in a position to turn around its reputation?

When it was announced last week that Jarvis had been appointed by Norfolk County Council to handle a £263m school-building programme, it was perhaps inevitable that the firm, which has become synonymous with private involvement in public services, would take a hammering from the media.

Notably absent were the PR team's wishlist of headlines referring to topics such as local job creation. Instead, the Norfolk Evening News followed its national counterparts by prefixing the word 'Jarvis' with 'troubled' and linking the story with delays at another of the firm's school-building programmes, on the Wirral.

For Jarvis, it would seem, even the good news stories come out badly and, looking back over the year, this is hardly surprising.

The issue of whether or not the firm was responsible for the Potters Bar rail crash still rumbles on, and it was recently forced to admit responsibility for a derailment at King's Cross. For every story about Norfolk, not only are delays in Wirral dredged up, but so, too, are lighting problems at another of the firm's schools, in London.

Even news that the top manager, chairman Paris Moayedi, is to be replaced by media-savvy Steve Norris has been received poorly. Unsurprising, perhaps, as Jarvis helps run part of the London Underground and Norris is the Tory candidate in next year's London mayoral election.

Despite this rather bleak picture, those involved in the communications operation believe 2004 will be better, and that the firm may just be on the verge of turning the reputation corner.

Luther Pendragon partner and co-founder Charles Stewart-Smith, whose agency advises Jarvis on corporate PR, argues there is evidence emerging - particularly at a local level - that the company's reputation is improving.

Lisa Carine, head of comms at Jarvis subsidiary Accommodation Services - the division that runs the Private Finance Initiative (PFI) school projects - agrees that, at a local and trade media level, the firm's reputation is improving, but admits there is a long way to go before the same can be said of the national media.

Her strategy when approached by a journalist with a negative example, such as the delays in the Wirral, is to attempt to put it into context.

This includes pointing to the latest figures, showing that more than 90 per cent of Jarvis's school buildings are delivered on time, compared with around 30 per cent of non-Jarvis projects before PFI. 'Jarvis does have reputation issues. For us it's a question of trying to get straight reporting,' says Carine.

The firm recently reorganised its top-level PR, with John Major's ex-press secretary, Jonathan Haslam, taking up the newly created role of director of comms last week. Although this is undoubtedly a positive move, so, too, was the creation of another senior role, that of director of strategic comms, earlier this year. That post-holder, Richard Emmott, who joined from Yorkshire Water parent Kelda, lasted just months in the job before leaving to join his former Kelda bosses at Royal Sun & Alliance.

The strategic comms role was then axed.

Haslam is unfazed: 'I'm here for the long haul.' He is adamant that Jarvis will soon lose its troubled tag. 'The challenge is to keep explaining what the firm does and let people see the improvements we are making,' he adds. Haslam will certainly benefit from October's announcement that the firm is to hand over its rail maintenance contracts to Network Rail, thus cutting off a big source of potential crises.

One source within the comms operation, who declined to be named, says Haslam will also benefit from a change of culture at the firm, caused by Moayedi's departure. This effectively gives the more PR-friendly chief executive Kevin Hyde, to whom Haslam reports, more control.

The source says: 'Kevin takes comms very seriously. Paris was the driving entrepreneur but could be rather brusque in his style. That made it difficult to communicate effectively.'

The source says those handling comms for Jarvis have already noticed a difference, with the firm changing PR strategy over the recent derailment at King's Cross. The source adds: 'Under the previous regime, the strategy would be to blame everyone but themselves. With King's Cross, they identified they had not done something right and took the blame.'

Another senior comms operation source, who also declined to be named, says: 'Jarvis offers the manifestation of a political debate. There are those that believe it shouldn't be doing what it is doing, which means every hiccup is front-page news.'

When asked if Jarvis will ever be written about without the prefix 'troubled', Sunday Telegraph city editor Robert Peston laughs before offering the company's PROs further reason to be optimistic. 'A year ago, people always referred to Cable & Wireless as "troubled",' he says. 'Now nine out of ten mentions don't. It is possible that Jarvis will one day go back to being a boring company.' There's hope yet.

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